The most recent season of Celebrity Apprentice, the 14th iteration of NBC’s long-running reality show, premiered two years ago. Rarely, if ever, has a series that has not been on the air been more in the air than The Apprentice has during those two years, due—as if you didn’t know—to Donald Trump’s long, Apprentice-fueled, reality TV–tinged presidential campaign and subsequent election. The Apprentice is the ur-text of the Trump persona. Created by Mark Burnett, the show began airing in 2004, revitalizing and popularizing Trump’s image as a tough, no-nonsense, affably pompous, and mercurial showboat businessman.
The existing seasons of The Apprentice have simmered throughout the election season like a moldering pot of bouillabaisse: If you have the stomach for it, you could see what the Trump funk was made of—mostly telegenic authoritarianism. Now that Trump is president-elect, it’s impossible to watch any Apprentice highlight reel without projecting all over it. Thrill to hear Trump fire a contestant for being “impulsive.” Then continue watching and grimace as Trump himself is wantonly impulsive, treating the workaday tics of civility—humility, generosity, debate, self-deprecation—as fireable offenses.
Now, offering itself up as a new object to be projected all over: the newest season of The Apprentice, which premiered Monday night on NBC and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of Donald Trump. A year and a half ago— Trump, like small children, has a way of making time feel both swift and endless—NBC was doing everything it could to distance itself from Donald and his Miss America pageant because of his comments about Mexican immigrants. When his campaign momentarily seemed like it would be derailed by leaked footage of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, footage that was taped during filming of The Apprentice, Schwarzenegger publicly disavowed him. Trump has since been elected president, held on to his executive producer credit for the series, and is likely the only reason another season of this long-running reality show is still of any interest to anyone. What is the new Apprentice except an occasion to consider the reality TV stylings of one macho celebrity versus another? Can Arnold teach us something about Donald? Or just make us wish that, if it was destiny for a ridiculous entertainer turned politician with eerily colored hair and a thick accent to end up in the White House, perhaps the two could have switched places?
Schwarzenegger makes Trump look like a brilliant reality TV host while making himself seem vastly more suited to having access to the nuclear launch codes. Schwarzenegger—despite whipping out a number of absurd catchphrases (mostly recycled lines from his movies); trying to be a hard ass in the boardroom; insisting that old friend Jon Lovitz call him “the Governor”; and even telling a triumphant story about how, as a 19-year-old gym manager in Munich, he took off all his clothes and posed in the streets to help fill the gym—is just not a fickle and thin-skinned egotist likely to fire someone for the sin of defending a colleague, interrupting, refusing to tattle, or some other inoffensive offense interpreted as personal weakness.
Trump was the breakout star of The Apprentice because, in the boardroom firing scenes, he out-crazied all the other contestants. Reality TV stars are unpredictable, merciless, catty, and gloriously themselves. Trump was always these things and reliably more of these things than anyone else on his show. In the two-hour premiere of the new Apprentice, Schwarzenegger talks tough but basically sticks to logic: Reasonable people get fired and get fired reasonably, now with the catchphrase “You’re terminated,” which elicited a knowing giggle from the contestants. Trump was the star of The Apprentice. Schwarzenegger just has top billing. The resulting show is as dull as one hopes Trump’s presidency will be.