The Apprentice features16 strivers who hope to work for The Donald.

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Jan. 7 2004 5:08 PM

Winner Trumps All

NBC's The Apprentice features16 strivers who hope to work for The Donald.

Donald Trump
Trump this

In the prologue to NBC's new reality show The Apprentice (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET; special 90-minute premiere Thursday Jan. 8, 8:30 p.m. ET) Donald Trump takes time out of his busy schedule to explain his magnificence. Riding in the back of a limousine, Trump introduces himself to viewers as the most successful real estate developer in New York. (He means the universe.) He then goes on to catalog his many acquisitions and accomplishments, while the video feed shows such disparate images as an aerial shot of a luxury resort and a photo op with boxing promoter Don King. Many of Trump's properties are big, others are quite shiny, while some are both. We're supposed to be awed by this display, but Trump's résumé left me more mystified than impressed. There is a point at which great wealth and influence become largely abstract. Like particle physics or the virgin birth, you may grasp the basic principles but you end up having to take the details on faith.

The premise of The Apprentice, however, is straightforward. Sixteen contestants from all walks of life—but strikingly similar levels of attractiveness—descend on New York to participate in a reality show that is Survivor for Future Business Leaders of America. The contestants are divided into two fictional corporations—the men of Versacorp and the women of the Protégé Corporation—who compete against each other while performing what Trump calls "business tasks," but which viewers will recognize as busy work. In the end, Trump will anoint the true apprentice and award the lucky striver a yearlong contract in the Trump Organization Company with a salary of $250,000. Finally, a show that captures two of the least savory aspects of having a job: busting your ass for no apparent reason, and sucking up to a boss whose status you can never attain.

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Despite the depressing implications of having to appear on a reality show to find gainful employment—at one point, Trump calls the show "a 13-week job interview"—the show is a lot of fun, in part because of its theatricality. New York has hosted The Real World, The Restaurant, and America's Next Top Model, but never has a reality show feasted on the city's sights and sounds as gleefully as The Apprentice. Producer Mark Burnett treats the city like an enormous stage set, and though the choices can feel hammy and superfluous, they are also a thrill, like when Trump announces the first big business task from the bell podium at the New York Stock Exchange. Trump reminds them they are at the center of world finance but says that for today he wants them to get "back to basics." Each team then receives $250 in seed money and is charged with selling as much lemonade as they can in one day. What follows might not look like business to readers of Barron's; fans of screwball comedies and scavenger hunts, however, will feel right at home.

As the teams scramble to get organized, provisioned, and on the streets of New York, two gargoyles from the Trump Organization (they're real people, but they seem like characters out of Bleak House) watch over each team's progress, while Trump surveys things from the air. "You're not going to believe this," says Trump, shown speaking on the phone in his personal helicopter. "The men are down at the smelly Fulton Fish Market trying to sell lemonade! It's a terrible location and there's nobody here. I've gotta go. Bye." Now this is impressive. It's one thing to own casinos, refurbish Grand Central, and have your pick of Czech supermodels, but you truly haven't made it until a group of strangers desperately tries to curry favor with you while you heap scorn on them, from a helicopter.

The Apprentice borrows its tagline from another tale of business potency, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. "It's not personal. It's business," read the opening credits, which, in addition to not being as catchy (or as apt) as Survivor's "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast," is also not entirely true. When Americans congratulate themselves on their business acumen, we talk in terms of bold, unflinching decision-making or savvy market analysis, but what we're really good at is hustling. Though the show claims to demand of its contestants both book smarts and street smarts, The Apprentice is best viewed as an ode to the American hustler. After watching only the lemonade task, I'd put my money not on David Gould, the M.D. with an MBA, but on Horatio Alger poster boy Troy McClain, a real estate developer from Boise, Idaho, who sold one of his many glasses of lemonade "from one country boy to another." On the women's side, former Clinton appointee and Ph.D. candidate Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth looks great on paper, but it's winsome Santa Monica restaurant owner Kristi Frank who moved the most units with pecks on the cheek and the promise of her phone number.

The press materials for The Apprentice tout a wide range of business tasks—real estate deals, facilities management, and the nebulous "finance"—but the emphasis is on sales, marketing, and promotion. All of which bring us back to The Donald, who plays the show's benefactor but is actually its beneficiary. For, despite his wealth, Trump's celebrity star has of late faded, and I'm confident this show will bring back its light, if only for a short while. In exchange for this publicity, he's helping a batch of unknowns boost their profile. It's a "win-win" situation, which, as I understand things, is great for business.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.