It's kind of sad, what happened to "The Apprentice." Once, it was one of the more captivating hours of reality TV, a show that turned Donald Trump's hair into a weird sort of national treasure. But like its star, it quickly overleveraged. There was an ill-fated stint in Los Angeles, an ill-advised foray into the Martha Stewart franchise, the replacement of a trusted Trump adviser with a glamourpuss Trump daughter, and soon enough, the relevance was lost.
Now, Trump and producer Mark Burnett are trying to restore old glory with the help of some low-wattage star power. In the new opening of "
Some of them, you might have heard of. The contestants include Playboy playmate Tiffany Fallon, boxer Lennox Lewis, and actor Vinnie Pastore, who played "Big Pussy" on "The Sopranos." But the main thing you need to know is that they've brought back Omarosa, the first-season "Apprentice" contestant who won fame by virtue of her superhuman abrasiveness.
Of course, fame born from reality TV only spreads so far. Some of her "Apprentice" competitors sniff that they've never heard of her, so Omarosa carries herself here with the fervor of someone who wants to prove she's legit. Or maybe that's just how she is; she enters in a silver snakeskin dress, trash-talking and demanding to be in charge.
On the men's side, her attention-grabbing counterpart is KISS frontman Gene Simmons, a marketing mogul in his own right, who seems to know he'd be better off giving business tutorials to Trump. At the very least, Simmons knows enough about business to understand that this show has practically nothing to do with it. Unlike Bravo's "Project Runway," which manages to make spellbinding TV out of the intricacies of sewing, Trump's tasks are always shameless reality concoctions: one part marketing exercise, two parts excuse to create artificial conflict.
Thursday's task was no different. The stars were charged with setting up a hot dog stand on a Manhattan street corner, and the team that made the most money would win. Omarosa, yammering something about "solid business concepts," swiftly launched her teammates on the path to doom, ordering them to downplay their fame and wear hideous T-shirts with hot dogs on the front. Simmons chose a different strategy. Sneering behind his sunglasses, he casually picked up his black address book and started to call his friends.
"Could you do me a favor?" he said as his teammates looked on admiringly. "I'd like you to show up and buy a $5,000 hot dog. All the money goes to charity. Will you do that for me?"
Ah, so this is how it's going to go: Celebrities showing off their rich contacts and begging for money. Even mostly-forgotten "Taxi" star Marilu Henner, it turns out, knows some people rich enough to buy bottles of water for $5,000 apiece. For the sake of the stars, Burnett and Trump have also tweaked their original boardroom formula. No suitcases here, since these folks are allegedly too illustrious to live together in a hotel suite. Also, the losing team gets to watch the boardroom proceedings on closed-circuit TV. On Thursday's premiere - spoiler alert - the men watched with amusement as the women got grilled.
"Omarosa's a survivor," Simmons declared, as the show's loudest contestant made a case for herself. "Like a cockroach."
He's right, on several levels. Omarosa's resident-evil act has already worn thin, but she has the advantage of a distinctive personality, and the producers clearly need to keep her around. By contrast, most of these so-called stars fade so easily into the background that it's hard to remember they're here. (Couldn't Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci have done a backflip or two to sell hot dogs? Apparently not.) No one seems especially engaged, since there's so little at stake, and getting "fired" doesn't carry much sting.
Omarosa is hungry, at least; she's a vestige of the old "Apprentice" spirit, and a reminder of what's been lost. It's far more fun to watch people claw their way to moderate fame than to wallow around in money once they get there.