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`Benefactor' doesn't hit the jackpot

There doesn't appear to be a modest hair on Donald Trump's thatched head. That's no secret to anyone who has watched the host of "The Apprentice" lord it over his eager young wannabes, his comb-over reaching ever so aggressively toward his eyelids.

Mark Cuban, who presides over ABC's "The Benefactor," is an egomaniac of quite a different stripe. While Trump behaves like American royalty with his plush limousine and elegant boardroom, Cuban portrays himself as an average Joe who just happens to be a multibillionaire. No biggie, he seems to be saying; I still wear jeans and get down with the people. "Despite his billions," the show's narrator assures us in the premiere, tonight at 8 on Channel 5, "Mark is still just a regular guy."

I'm not buying it. Cuban, a software tycoon and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, may wear tacky clothes, but he's not a "regular guy." What "regular guy" wants to gather 16 contestants in a Dallas mansion in order to play God with them? What "regular guy" sits in a massive control room spying on the contestants and picking apart their tiniest personality traits? There's something suspect about his modesty, given the fact that he has designed an entire TV series around himself and his ability to part with a million dollars like others might part with a penny.

The "Benefactor" game, which isn't explained clearly during the premiere, seems to be that Cuban will kick out a few players each week based on completely arbitrary judgments. For example (and don't finish this sentence if you don't want to read a small spoiler), tonight he eliminates one woman for refusing to play air guitar for him. Cuban is supposedly rejecting her for not exhibiting enough character and confidence to deserve the money. But it looks as though he simply doesn't like her, even if she did run naked in her audition video. Cuban throws around glib justifications for his actions -- "You don't get a second chance to give a first impression," he declares in his Jeff Probst-like tones -- but ultimately they all seem pretty unscientific and capricious.

"The Benefactor" doesn't have any of the intensity of "The Apprentice," even while it's a knockoff of NBC's hit show. It plays out more like a half-baked version of "Big Brother," featuring a Big Brother who's probably not going to be a big TV success.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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