'The Apprentice' a 'Survivor' for the rich and conspicuous
By Robert P. Laurence
January 6, 2004
Donald Trump says he was once "billions of dollars in debt."
Of course, poor people, or even the moderately well off, aren't allowed to get billions of dollars in debt. To qualify for that honor, you have to be really, really rich.
Now Trump is apparently out of debt and even richer, rich enough to be the living American symbol of ridiculous wealth, not to mention proud owner of the nation's most copious comb-over. He is to money what Liberace once was to sequined capes and candelabra; he's got it, and he loves to flaunt it.
So now NBC, apparently in the belief that the 1980s of "Dallas," "Dynasty" and the glamour appeal of conspicuous consumption are back, is making Trump the star of its latest reality show, "The Apprentice."
In "The Apprentice," 16 ambitious young business phenoms – eight men and eight women – are competing for a job running one of Trump's companies. One is a doctor and venture capitalist, one is co-owner of a Santa Monica restaurant, another a 21-year-old operator of a chiropractic marketing company. One, at 23, seems to be a slumlord: "I rent 39 units to low-income families."
The oldest is 36, and most, particularly the notably long-legged women, seem to be chosen as much for their looks as their financial acumen. Did I mention the whole affair is produced by Mark Burnett, whose halter-tops-in-the-tropics "Survivor" franchise may be making nearly as much money as Trump's real estate empire?
This game might be described as "Survivor in the City." The contestants are divided into two teams – men vs. women – which each week are assigned tasks. At the end of every episode, one member of the losing team is kicked off the island (Manhattan Island, that is), and whoever is left at the end gets the job.
Of course, a lot of people these days can't find any job at all, much less, in Trump's words, "the dream job of a lifetime," and a chance to "learn enough so maybe they, too, can become a billionaire someday." But those people can't afford to buy the stuff being advertised in the commercials on "The Apprentice," so who cares what they think?
The dialogue in "The Apprentice" will seem familiar to anybody who's ever seen "Survivor" or its many imitators. There's much carping and backbiting, and not a little bragging. "If you put one over on me, I'm gonna 10 times you, I'm going to do you back 10 times," swaggers one of the guys. "I'll be able to pull something off a lot better than they will."
In the first episode, Trump assigns them a back-to-basics task, selling lemonade on the sidewalks of New York. To the camera, he offers a bit of Trumpian wisdom about the importance of location: "The people behind the deal are much more important than the location. I'd much rather have a really smart, talented guy doing the deal in a not-so-good location than an idiot doing the deal in a great location. You'll make money every time."
The men get organized quickly, get themselves a cart, and are soon in business at the Fulton Fish Market. Business is good at first, but slows down.
The women take considerably longer, bicker and snipe, organize and reorganize, even get lost, but eventually go into business on a busy sidewalk. Business drags. They turn to the greatest marketing tool of all, sex. They offer the lemonade for $5 a glass, and throw in a kiss, and their phone numbers (or somebody's phone number).
They win the competition and a trip to Trump's own apartment, a glaring, gleaming, golden, marble-encrusted display of wretched excess where the flying cherubs are rivaled in number only by the faucets and fountains, a place Marie Antoinette could only dream of. There, they meet Trump's willowy trophy girlfriend, who it seems has already won the competition.
Leaving aside the question of whether Burnett, Trump and NBC are just oblivious to the growing gap between the rich and the not-so-rich in America, or whether they're intentionally rubbing it in, "The Apprentice" brings up another issue.
With all his billions, why can't Donald Trump find a decent barber?