It’s hard to believe that Donald Trump was once relevant enough to be considered menacing. Relentlessly ambitious and always clamoring for attention, he loomed over the ’80s like a Nouveau-Riche Darth Vadar. There was something almost demonic in his vulgarity, and his penchant for erecting towering phallic structures over New York, all glittering in excess and emblazoned with his name, seemed like the realization of some unholy destiny. But that was a long time ago.
Trump, now in his mid-60s, has been reduced to a familiar, almost benevolent curiosity. His interests have settled in the province of old men. Now, instead of turning New York City upside down, he builds golf courses, tends to casinos, governs beauty pageants, and of course, continues to preside over the sputtering reality franchise “The Apprentice.”
“The Apprentice” debuted in 2004 and featured an array of attractive Trump-Wannabes running around the streets of Manhattan trying to impress the big man with their business savvy. It was little more than a love letter to New York, but it did look good, and there was the unmistakable zest of charisma to the proceedings that made it a celebrated guilty pleasure. Of course, like all Mark Burnett productions, the formula quickly grew stale and our attention began to flag.
However, instead of retiring the franchise, the producers did what they always do, which was to reshape it into “Celebrity Apprentice,” as obviously, anything that was successful without celebrities, would almost certainly be more successful with celebrities. And so now, for the third season in a row, NBC is giving us “Celebrity Apprentice.”
This time around, the show includes some people I’ve heard of, and others I have not. (If you’re actually familiar with Holly Robinson Peete’s body of work, I ask you to send me your address so I can mail you a prize.)
Amongst the contestants are aged rocker and listless Pam Anderson sex tape participant Bret Michaels. He’s 47 now, and seems intent on concealing his receding hairline beneath a rock star bandanna that he wears all the time. Offsetting his unnaturally colored skin is his unnaturally colored hair, which doesn’t quite distract you from the work he’s had done on his eyes, which makes him look a bit like some ambiguity you might encounter in Bangkok.
56 year-old Cyndi Lauper also appears on the show. She has a crazy mop of dyed hair from which you might reasonably expect a crow to emerge. She was a star back in the ’80s, and now finds herself caught in a celebrity shtick that sees her affecting the rebellious and insouciant posture of her past, which is entirely dispiriting to watch. After belting out a thin and raspy rendition of her old hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for a largely indifferent audience, she then posed for photographs, each time elevating her chin in an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles in her neck.
More than 2/3rds of the contestants on “Celebrity Apprentice” are in their 40s and 50s, and there’s a sincere pathos in watching them pretend to be younger in the hope of, well, becoming Donald Trump’s Apprentice. Well, they’re not actually competing to become Trump’s Apprentice— not that anybody ever was— but are competing for their favorite charity, or in some desperate and deluded way, to breathe life into a career that’s found itself off the rails.
A prime example of this is Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Governor of Illinois. Cast out of the world of politics after a raft of corruption charges, Blagojevich has decided that appearing on Celebrity Apprentice will help restore his name and honor. And so we watch as he strolls down a Manhattan street on some game show mission, only to be called out as a “disgrace” by a quintessential New Yorker. Unfazed, he tries to shake the hand of the nearest available person only to have them recoil in horror, as if from a particularly noxious virus. A moment later he gratefully gathers a little bit of pedestrian attention he presumes is positive, only to find out he’s been mistaken for Donny Osmond.
“He’s a world class comedian and one cool dude.”
… Rod Blagojevich describing Sinbad
The last episode saw the elimination of Sinbad, parachute-panted comic from the ’80s. He was made project manager for Rocksolid, the stupidly named men’s team, as they competed against Tenacity, the stupidly named women’s team. What was evident in watching both groups battle was that the primary business asset any of the contestants had was their rapidly fading celebrity. None of them, at least for the purposes of this show, had evolved in any discernible way. Darryl Strawberry posed for pictures with a bat in his hands and Goldberg, the wrestler, either lifted people over his head or moved furniture. The rest, if they couldn’t perform the function that made them stars so many years ago, focused on busy work, like gathering balloons or looking after the cupcake station.
The only business lessons that “The Apprentice” offers is in marketing. First and foremost, it’s a billboard for the Trump brand. After that, it’s an extended tourism ad for New York City. The New York depicted is a grand city of industry and light. We see clouds zooming over the skyscrapers, boats steaming in from the harbor, the Empire State Building at arty angles, and people, always people, pouring ever forward. It’s exciting that, and as we follow the contestants through the streets and restaurants of glamor and promise, well, we realize the star of the show is the city, and not anybody else.
However, Trump is still the monarch, and as we journey into the boardroom each episode to watch him fire somebody in the final act, we’re blessed with the presence of two of his children. Serving as advisers, they sit like gargoyles on either side of their dad.
There’s Donald Junior, his firstborn. He has inexplicably greased back hair, a look of faux-sophistication that suggests a French Maitre D’ who somehow ended up working in Rochester. You can practically smell his cologne through the TV, and somehow, in his face, you see the prince who will never become king.
Conversely, there’s the daughter Ivanka, who has an oval face that comes to a sharp point at her chin, and a severe mouth that makes her look ungenerous. However, she’s actually kind of beautiful, and exhibits a keen mind and a business acumen that would surely make her father proud.
As Sinbad struggles for his life in the boardroom, the Trump children remain even- tempered and dignified, supporting their father in his tough decision to fire the comic. As Sinbad takes his leave, he maintains his pride by pimp-bobbing his head as he passes Amanda, the beautiful, pearl-clad preppie receptionist. Taking the elevator downstairs, free of the humiliation of having to pull a little suitcase along after him, he steps out onto the street and punches-it-out, aging cool-guy-style, with the doorman, before being driven off into the professional oblivion from whence he came.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.