Trumped Up Charges 

The Donald, The Apprentice and Western civilization

The Donald, The Apprentice and Western civilization

Ever been fired? Nothing puts a job in perspective quite like being thrown out of it on a moment’s notice. An ego-deflating shock to the system perhaps, but now it’s also weekly TV entertainment on NBC’s The Apprentice, where ambitious young sycophants vie to be the last one fired by the frighteningly megalomaniacal Donald Trump. Like most of the reality TV genre, the show mixes on-the-fly clinical psychology with prolonged periods of watching paint dry (interspersed, naturally, with requisite individual cutaway commentary on how annoying or creepy everyone else is).

But if the broad production format of The Apprentice is familiar and formulaic, its content turns out to be embarrassingly and addictively worthwhile for what it has to say about the business of business. (One hastens to add that the things it has to say are mostly grim and disheartening.)

For the uninitiated: In each weekly installment, contestants (we’re probably supposed to call them apprentices, but that would imply they are actually learning something) in two teams compete at a businessy task with a measurable outcome. One team wins, and its members repair for cocktails. One team loses, and its members repair for cocktails too. But later the losers get to nurse their hangovers in a boardroom where The Donald, flanked by his corporate lieutenants The George and The Carolyn, grills them about their team failure.

After guiding the losing team’s members through a few nicely choreographed minutes of ritual denunciation and recrimination, T.D. grows weary and fires someone. Said pariah catches an elevator down to a waiting taxi out of Warholville. The others return to the cast’s neo-Real World suite to await the next neo-Survivor challenge. At the end of the show’s run (we’re in week seven right now), the one left standing wins a six-figure job for a year in Trump’s organization.

Elimination games on reality TV are mostly insular—people cloistered in (and tossing each other out of) a closed system—an island, a house, a resort, a vat of insects and so forth. But on The Apprentice the cast is out there engaging with and pitching to an unpredictable outside world, and then called to account for how it went. Sure, it’s contrived at times, but, hey, this is network television.

The early episodes resurfaced a timeless dictum of market capitalism: Sex sells. With the teams divided by chromosomes to begin the series, the women beat the men four straight weeks, using some form of sexual titillation to strategic advantage each time. This catalyzed a flurry of online commentary on the gender sociology of The Apprentice, which, depending on your point of view, depicts a kind of post-feminist liberation of aggressive, ambitious women who know how to get what they want. Or, it sends a fatally anti-feminist message that women succeed only when they use bodies instead of brains.

What it really shows is that attractive, superficial people will use sexuality to their advantage when they can’t think of anything better to do. The cast member profiles on NBC’s Web site point to shallowness as a job requirement (asked whom they admire personally or professionally, two said Howard Stern and two named Donald Trump), and the tasks themselves—hawking lemonade, pitching an ad campaign, hustling up restaurant customers—seemed calculated to invite and reward sexual artifice. After four weeks and four men sacked, to the relief of hard core feminist reality show viewers everywhere (you three know who you are), T.D. reshuffled the remaining 12 toadies into mixed-gender teams.

The Apprentice is more profound (and more profoundly depressing) on the subject of ethics in post-Enron America, reminding us painfully that integrity in business is still more frequently talked than walked. In week four of the show, one team lured customers by leading passers-by to believe that a team member was a celebrity athlete signing autographs. Afterwards, the one who came up with this patently fraudulent gambit offered this sparkling defense of virtue: “I didn’t sell a kid crack.” In the ensuing boardroom rehash, The Donald scolded him: “You did a lousy job in leading; you made some questionable ethical decisions”—and then fired someone else. In the board room two episodes later, T.D. labels actions by the losing team’s abrasively egotistical leader as “very rude” and “repulsive.” He tells two others on the team that “she treated you both like dogs”—and then proceeds to fire one of the dogs. In The Donald’s America, depravity gets you chided, and integrity gets you fired.

Most arresting is The Apprentice’s celebration of narcissism and self-ignorance. After several weeks of viewing, it’s hard to imagine how the producers could have found a group of people who are less self-aware—less in touch with their own maddening interpersonal foibles. The poster child is (or was) a guy named Sam, whom T.D. mercifully put out of everyone’s misery in week three. Sam tormented everyone (cast member and viewer alike) with a malignant mix of egotism and bootlicking, but afterward saw himself as merely misunderstood by inferior beings: “They didn’t get my style, my approach. And what people tend to do is when they don’t understand something, they reject it, they alienate it.” He mused that “dislike for a colleague is often a form of jealousy, envy and lack of vision.” Unfortunately for the oblivious Sam, sometimes dislike is just, well, dislike.

Near the end of each episode, as we catch the downcast, penitent glances of losing team members wondering who will be offed by The Donald, The Apprentice serves up a fleeting vision of a fair and just workplace where incompetents, cheats and imbeciles are held accountable. Alas, the moment quickly passes as brash calculation is inevitably rewarded over scrupulous enterprise. The real world is The Donald’s world—an endless contest between winners and losers. The Apprentice pretty much nailed the gestalt of the contemporary workplace last week when Trump told the losing team, “good job, but unfortunately someone still has to get fired.”


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