The Apprentice USA

Thursday, October 7, 2004 by

“You’re fired.” It’s pretty much mandatory for reality shows to bandy about their own catchphrase, but when the oddly coiffured Donald Trump utters these words, curtailing what feels like a genuinely freewheeling boardroom discussion, you can’t help but feel that – to purloin another slogan that’s in heavy rotation at the moment – this programme’s got the x-factor.

The format is bog-standard stuff. To whit: 16 hopefuls put themselves through a 13-week employment-vetting process in the hope of winning an apprenticeship with the world-famous tycoon. Via a series of tasks, one of their number is culled every week, prompting our man at the top of Trump towers to employ his catchy epithet.

There’s nothing here that’s especially distinctive, other than the notion of fusing a game show with big business. But, although that might seem a small point, it’s here this programme – and let’s get the pun over with right now – comes up trumps.

Business generally makes for great telly. All non-fiction entertainment TV is essentially about watching someone embark on an endeavour, but never is that undertaking so clearly defined as when it’s measured in terms of profit. All you need to know to grasp the main thread is that it comes down to the bottom line.

And talking about “grasping”, our moguls-in-waiting are a fine, typically acquisitive crew. Self confident, keen to assert their own interpretation upon the situation, sometimes delusional in terms of their own acumen, they make for a superbly entertaining collection of dysfunctional über-competitive combatants. No one really compromises here, they just use stealth and bitch about the decisions they didn’t agree with later when they’re called up in front of the big man.

The programme’s most notable casualty so far has been Sam Solovey, the co-founder of a successful internet company, and the man who’s been quoted as saying: “they’re all going to be working for me when this is over.” Sam, alas, couldn’t do stealth. Instead he naïvely put his trust in his colleagues. An inveterate bull-shitter, it seemed as though his game plan was to try and get the team to buy into his philosophy of life … as skewed as that appeared to be. Unfortunately, this genuine eccentric, who wasted crucial moments trying to deliver pep-talks based on footballing metaphors, never thought to raise his guard once, happily displaying his vulnerability and allowing team mates under the wire to provide him with counselling and support.

In the firing line from the first week, it was only his superb theatrics that kept him in the game so long. Offering an impassioned plea as to why he should be allowed to stick around, the gambit involved him – at the peak of his pitch – rising to his feet, which simply prompted Trump to order him to sit back down again. “Thank you sir,” came his response before resuming his appeal without missing a beat.

But it couldn’t last, and the manner of Sam’s sacking presented another pleasing twist in the tale. If the rest of the team wanted him out so badly (and they did) why didn’t they elect him leader for the day’s task and thus expose his weakness to everyone’s scrutiny? Well, that’s what I was shouting at the screen, and to my delight – it’s exactly what they did. A show where you can call the tactics, and call them right is surely a rare delight and as a result, even though I didn’t want to see “Sammy” (as they inevitably took to calling him) go, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit satisfied. That and Trump calling the girls up for using overt sexuality in all their dealings just minutes after I’d been moaning about the same thing, made me feel pretty clever.

And then, tonight, Bowie gets the sack mainly for just having a stupid name (inevitably, he pronounces it “Boo-ee”). With decisions like that, you can’t deny this programme’s got class, and unlike reality shows on this side of the pond, it’s also commendably taut. While longueurs of inconsequential chat and “character moments” traditionally blight the likes of Big Brother, The X Factor and, in particular, The Farm, The Apprentice USA only concerns itself with the game. We learn plenty about the contestants through their conduct, and, quite rightly, the programme-makers don’t consider it crucial we also join them for every evening meal, 4am toilet-stop or rueful fumble through their photos from home. This is just plain, simple businesslike television, and all the better for it.


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