I’ve often fantasized about what life would be like if I were really, truly rich. Hundreds of millions of dollars rich. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially greedy, billions of dollars rich. I’ve thought about how nice it would be to never have to deal with the student loan people ever again. I’ve smiled at the idea of abandoning my crappy Ford Escort in some lousy neighborhood with the keys in the ignition, and flying away on my personal hovercraft. Once or twice, the idea of a private island came to mind. I mean, charities, good causes, orphanages…sure. But once those things were taken care of, I’m all about my own private island, accessible only by Lear Jet. And hovercraft. Want to know what never came to mind, though, while engaging in these fantasies? Going on some reality show, so that millions of people around the world could say “Meh, congratulations on all the money and all, but I’d really rather watch a Cheers rerun.”
Alas, I’m not a billionaire, and therefore have no insight into the psyche of the upper financial echelon. Donations are gladly accepted, should any of you wish to right this injustice. In the meantime, however, we’re going to have to make do with observing eccentric (read: lunatic) billionaire extraordinaire, Sir Richard Branson, in his quest to find which of sixteen competitors will be the best at doing ridiculous physical stunts, which somehow translates into being a competent enough businessperson to run the corporate conglomerate known as Virgin.
This season of
The Apprentice The BenefactorRebel Billionaire starts out with a retrospective – not of Richard Branson’s impressive resume as an entrepreneur and corporate mogul, but of his penchant for activities that get him into the Guinness book of world records. Crossing the Pacific in a hot air balloon. Being the man who piloted the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by boat. Being the richest man on the planet who hasn’t bothered to get some much needed orthodonture on his bottom teeth. Little things like that.
We learn that through stunts that include bungee jumping, barreling over Victoria Falls, lots of hot air balloon action, and doing….something with a rocket, he’s going to find not only a protégée, but a successor. The winner of this show will become the president of the entire Virgin empire, a position that comes complete with a one million dollar salary. So basically it’s Survivor, but you have to actually work for your prize after you win.
As we meet our sixteen competitors, they’ve arrived in England, and are waiting to be taken by cab to Branson’s estate. Unlike most other shows, we’re not introduced to each individual contestant in cheesy little interviews where they say things like “I’m here because I’m the best, and I’ll eat all the raw fish eggs and pureed rat necessary to prove that I can do a damned fine job in the boardroom!” This is a mixed blessing. Good on the one hand, because, well, it saves us from watching such idiocy. Bad on the other, because there’s no way I’m going to be able to keep the secondary players of this episode straight. So when I say things like “that annoying spiky haired guy” and “that Barbie doll chick…no, not her, the other one.”, just bear with me, okay? Thanks.
The twists start immediately, as we learn that Branson is in disguise as the cab driver. He wants the chance to see how everyone acts when they aren’t on their best behavior, as they’ll no doubt never quite be genuine when in his presence. I immediately wish I could go back in time and be one of the 16 people on the show, because I’d win it solely based on this unknown challenge. I love cab drivers. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had in my life have been with cabbies. I’ve literally had them get to my house, turn off the meter and talk to me for another 20 minutes before leaving, just because we got into some interesting topic. Damnable hindsight. It’s a great way to start the show though, I think, because I love that it matters to Branson how these people treat “common” folk. I can’t think of anything more distasteful than people who are rude to cab drivers or waitresses or the people who bag your groceries at the supermarket. Score one for Branson.
During the cab rides, the contestants, who we learn are from all walks of life, run the politeness continuum from the guy who snaps that Americans always pack a lot of luggage to the woman who gushes that the business she has with Richard Branson includes worshipping him. One woman inexplicably claims to be Jennifer Lopez, a claim that even the real J-Lo probably denies more often than not.
Once everyone has arrived at the Branson estate, they mill about with big smiles of abject terror and anticipation, sizing up the competition. A few people actually do give their cheesy introductions, but the fact that one guy claimed that he’d be making everyone his bitch has forced me to boycott recapping that part.
An enormous stretch limousine pulls up, and a bloated Donald Trump clone emerges. Score two for Branson, because that was good comedy on a couple of different levels. First of all, Donald Trump is inherently funny. Or his hair is. As is the way he takes himself so seriously. And his hair again. But also, I like that Branson isn’t trying to make the ridiculous and false claim that his show wasn’t on some level inspired by The Apprentice. I don’t mind when people copy one another, as long as they’re honest about it. As everyone is laughing at the joke, a cab pulls up and Branson hops out. Cheers and applause follow. He congratulates them for being the top choices out of over 50,000 applicants, but quickly puts a damper on their high spirits by revealing that they’ve already faced their first task, as he was their driver that morning. Based on his first impressions of their behavior in the car, two people will be leaving right away. There were three people total whose behavior he found questionable, and two of them will pay the ultimate price for that.
Aisha, the woman who claimed to be Jenny from the block, was too frivolous for Branson’s liking. Her constant prattle about t.v. shows and celebrities didn’t instill much faith that she was up for the challenge of running a business empire. Perhaps she should have discussed physical stunts and balloon rides instead. Shawn, the spiky-haired annoying boy, was cocky and abrasive, and didn’t offer to help the cabbie with his heavy bags. Spencer, the other spiky-haired annoying boy, was just a dick, barking “How many more minutes?!” and generally complaining about the drive. At the end of it, Spencer and Aisha were eliminated, and I’m thankful that there’s one fewer overly-hair gelled jerk to keep track of. Aisha wasn’t ready to go without a fight, though, crying to Branson that she’s a serious businesswoman who sacrificed her job, her husband and her son for this opportunity. What kind of crazy-ass cult does this chick belong to? Ritualistic sacrificial killings are almost never the answer, people. Richard lovingly tells her “Well, you can get back to your son now.” Zing!
Olga Korbut Would Kick Ass At This
The following morning, the remaining contestants are summoned for a pre-dawn adrenaline jolt. They walk out into the yard – can you still call it a yard if it’s roughly the size of Central Park? – to find two hot air balloons being inflated. Sara, the owner of a footless pantyhose company (yeah, I know), is terrified of heights and not quiet about letting everyone know it. They are told that the day’s task will consist of crossing a plank between the two balloons at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Not everyone will be participating in this task; seven people of the remaining fourteen will be subjected to closer scrutiny. Richard wants to see how well they’ll participate under pressure. This is why it pays to be nice to cab drivers, folks. You never know when being anything less than gracious will force you into a situation where you could plummet over a mile to your death. Words to live by.
Shawn, the annoying spiky-haired boy that narrowly avoided being sent home the previous day, is chosen to be the leader of this challenge. It will be his job to decide the order in which people will make their way across the plank. According to Richard, this will give him insight into what Shawn thinks of his teammates, and it’s best not to be chosen last. The goal is to get the entire team transferred from one balloon to the other. One balloon has less fuel than the other, and therefore time is of the essence. There will be guidewires on either side of the plank, but if they are touched once, the person has to return to the beginning and start again. If they are touched a second time, the person is eliminated. The plank is roughly three inches wide. I took gymnastics for several years when I was a kid. Balance beams are 4 inches wide. They’re also four feet off the ground. I fell off that bad boy more times than I can count. And I can count pretty high. So yeah, this stunt is ridiculously hard. Footless pantyhose Sara agrees with my assessment, and immediately starts working on Shawn, asking him to please send her first. She’s terrified, and she knows that if she can’t just get up there and immediately do it, her nerves will fray exponentially with each passing moment. Shawn repeats this declaration back to the group, which Sara takes as an agreement that she can go first.
Once the balloons reach their cruising altitude, Shawn, who is the first to make the trip across the plank, decides that if the stunt isn’t all that frightening, he’ll indulge Sara’s request. If it is scary – and really, is there any way it wouldn’t be? – he’s going to send Michael. It is, and Michael comes across. After a few wobbles, the man pretty much made a dead sprint across the beam, which freaked me out a little bit. Third across is Erica, who looks for all the world like a low-rent Nancy McKeon. Michael chooses her because “she’s shown herself to be a great team player so far.” Um, when? During yesterday’s cab ride/champagne drinking extravaganza? Anyway, Erica’s great team playing self scoots her way across the beam more slowly and deliberately than the men before her, but makes it to the other side unscathed. She chooses Nicole to come next, because of her physicality. Between all the shots of the chosen team members, we’re treated to shots of Sara being pissed that her request wasn’t granted. Feel a sense of entitlement much, sweetie? After being assured that Jessica is, in fact, “rockin’”, she’s the next one summoned across. She makes it just fine, and Tim is up, leaving Sara to be dead last. Unfortunately for Tim, his trip across the plank doesn’t go as smoothly as those ahead of him, and he touches the guidewire twice. Sorry Tim, you’re screwed. Sara, let’s see what ya got, crybaby. She quickly touches the wires twice in succession, and is immediately eliminated. Would it have been any different had she gone first? We’ll never know, but somehow I doubt it.
The Little Ingénue That Could
So now we have Sara and Tim (who, by the way, is a trial attorney) left in the balloon with Sir Richard. He informs the unlucky twosome that at this point they’re each in control of their own destiny. They will have to climb 150 feet up the side of the balloon to join him at the top, where the three of them will have a tea party. Not for nothing, but if I climbed 150 feet up the side of a balloon already 10,000 feet in the air, someone better have something a hell of a lot stronger than tea waiting for me when I got up there. I’m talking absinthe-level strong. And plenty of it. If either of the two fail to reach the top, they’ll be eliminated. Adding to his likeability factor, Richard decides to go first, to show Sara and Tim that the stunt, while difficult, is eminently doable.
Once Richard reaches the top of the balloon, it’s time for Sara and Tim to start climbing. Each of them struggle, although Sara has a much more difficult time of it. Aside from being a total mind-screw, this is an incredibly physically demanding task. It requires total body strength in a thinner environment than most people typically are used to. After 15 minutes, Tim reaches the top and collapses next to the gold spray-painted lawn furniture set atop the balloon. I almost wanted to make fun of the cheapness of the chairs, but then I thought it through and realized, hell, this is a balloon we’re dealing with. You want to keep from ripping through the fabric and falling into the flame. Mahogany thrones aren’t going to cut it up here.
Finally, in roughly the amount of time it takes for Branson to earn another bazillion dollars, Sara makes it to the top. In her glee, she tries to jump for joy and her leg plunges through the top of one of the balloon seams. Nice job, Einstein. Once she’s unhooked from her harnesses, the three of them toast with…well, that’s odd. They toast with what would appear to be empty glasses. Whatever works, I guess. I still say I’d want some very strong cocktail, but to each their own. After the invisible tea, they’re lowered back down into the basket, with Sara complaining the entire time. I understand that she overcame a huge fear today and all, but damn this girl is whiny. Suck it up, woman.
Despite the fact that both Sara and Tim completed the task, one of them will still have to be eliminated from the game. They’ve both impressed Branson, though, and he has a very difficult decision ahead of him.
The More You Know
Back on terra firma, Sara and Tim rejoin the group in the house, and they recount their adventure. In voiceover, Sara explains how she was “betrayed” and how she’ll never trust anyone again. I have to say, I’m sure she’s a nice woman and a smart businesswoman, but it really rubs me the wrong way how she continues to act as if everyone else owes her something. It’s the same on all of these shows. You are there in competition with the people around you. They owe you nothing. You make your own destiny in these situations. Please stop blaming others for your own shortcomings. Thank you. That’s my second and final PSA of this recap. Oh, and don’t do drugs. And stay in school.
Hong Kong Phooey
On what I can only assume is the following day, the entire cast assembles on an airplane tarmac, and the twelve members not up for elimination board the Virgin plane. Tim and Sara stay behind, as they learn their fate. Richard very sweetly compliments both of them, and tells them how pleased he is to have shared the balloon experience with them, something he’ll remember for the rest of his life. He tells Tim that he’s sure he’s an excellent lawyer, and he could definitely transition into business if that’s what he chooses to do. Sara is praised for her ability to overcome her fears in order to complete the climb, as well as for her entrepreneurial spirit. Each is handed a plane ticket, one that will reunite the recipient with the rest of the contestants, the other of which is a pass back to America.
In an attempt to build dramatic tension, we only see the reactions of Sara and Tim (Sara crying, Tim stoic), and aren’t specifically told which ticket each received. Of course the emotions they aired were red herrings, though, as Sara is the one who follows Richard onto the plane. Tim heads back to Chicago, interviewing that he wouldn’t do anything differently. Except, I’d wager, maybe not grab those guidewires. Twice. As Sara got on the plane, the other contestants all give nice little sound bites about how they’re glad it was her, she really deserved to be there, she’s probably the strongest player in the game. I personally disagree, though, and feel that Tim was penalized by not having a fear to overcome. Then again, I’m not a billionaire, and maybe this is why. Sara tells us how badly she feels that Tim was sent home, although she’s pleased to still be in the game.
Sara and the others can’t mourn the loss of Tim for long, however, as they learn that they’ll be jetting off to Hong Kong. For this next challenge, the teams will be divided into two groups: men vs. women. I’d really like to see one of these shows find a better way to pick groups, such as by height or eye color or something. Just once. The battle of the sexes thing is getting old. Each team has to choose a leader, and is given five minutes to deliberate about whom to pick. The girls pick Sara, the boys pick some guy who may or may not have even been featured before this very moment named Jermaine. Jermaine is a motivational speaker, so I suppose it’s as good a choice as any. But wait: we’re about to get tricky! The leader of the men’s team will be leading the women, and vice versa! Okay, so it’s really not that tricky. But to see the dropped jaws on everyone on the plane, you’d think that Richard had just announced that they’d be forced to walk to Hong Kong, and anyone who didn’t arrive within 24 hours would be strapped naked atop an anthill after being liberally covered in honey. And also maybe catapulted. Heather, another one who hadn’t said one word prior to this (and who is the CEO of some video company), pipes up that “A team of women is a very volatile situation. Adding a man as the head of that is probably the match on the gasoline can.” Way to really reinforce negative gender-based stereotypes, Heather! Big props to you for that one. I lied about not having another PSA, because here goes: women can work together just fine. I know this for a fact, as I’ve done it. Self-fulfilling prophecies may be what prevents Heather from being okay with female colleagues, but I resent the idea that all women are just one bitchy remark away from an all-out catfight at all times. Also, eat your vegetables.
Mile-High Club Incentives Are Not An Option
The mission this time involves Virgin airlines. Richard feels that because his airline is comparatively small, the one thing that they need to do in order to stay competitive with the likes of the Uniteds and Americans of the flight world is pay extra attention to the little details. Therefore, the theme of this competition is “In-flight Service.” Each team is given 24 hours in Hong Kong to find a new perk to add to Virgin’s first-class flights, just a little something extra to make the travelers feel pampered.
The teams break into their groups, and brainstorm together. The boys’ team, led by Sara, mull over ideas such as pillows, fortune cookies and mirrors. The girls’ team, led by Jermaine, however, doesn’t come together as cohesively. Well, hell. Catfight Heather is proving my little feminist rant wrong. That bitch. I’d totally claw her eyes out if I could. The problem, it would seem, is that Candida, another one who hasn’t had much to say until now, is playing the tried and true reality show standard of the feisty African-American woman who everyone has to try and please. Honestly, the whole thing is so formulaic. It’s a shame that this entire genre has to showcase the worst of every possible cultural group, because it’s not fair to anyone. Damn, I’m really not able to get off that high horse of mine today, am I? Anyway, the bottom line is that the unfortunately-named Candida is not pleased that team lead Jermaine isn’t listening to her many suggestions, and trouble is a’brewin’ for team estrogen over here.
As they land in Hong Kong, the boys’ team gets straight to work. They hit the streets in an effort to track down their items, and the bargaining begins. In contrast, the girls’ team sits in a hotel room, still trying to pin down their theme. I’ll be the first to admit that my geography isn’t great, but wouldn’t a flight from England to Hong Kong be a long enough flight that you could at least come up with a concept during the course of it? Hell, I flew from Chicago to Buffalo last year on a little not-quite-a-real-plane plane, and during that trip I finished an entire book and read the Skymall catalog cover-to-cover five times. They really sell some ridiculous crap to weary travelers, but I digress. They decide upon a wakeup amenities package, which they decide to call a morning-after kit. RU-486 not included, I suspect. Candida keeps shouting out ideas, which are largely ignored. This doesn’t sit well with her, and she plays her role on this show with aplomb.
Each team receives a letter from Richard, urging them to see a large Buddha statue nearby. Neither group is sure if this is another test, or merely a friendly suggestion from a well-traveled man. Will they be penalized if they fail to make time for the trip? Is soaking up local culture part of what makes a winner in this game without rules? If they do go see it, will Richard be angry that he sent them there to work, and they were too busy luxuriating in Buddha’s happy glow to do the best job possible? The answer lies only in Richard’s crafty brain, and either option is a gamble. The boys’ team decides to finish their business first, because they want to appear goal-oriented. The girls’ team, on the other hand, thinks that the trip to see the Buddha will only take three or four hours, leaving them plenty of time to finish their work, with the added bonus of gaining a better understanding of local culture. The best of both worlds, if you will.
Unfortunately for Jermaine and the girlies, the boat ride out to the Buddha takes far longer than originally anticipated. While they’re floating out to inner peace, the male team is hard at work, nitpicking over which pillow they want to include in their kit. Although the members of the girls’ team really enjoy their sightseeing trip, they are clearly falling behind in the work department. Once back on dry land, they divide into two sub-groups, and basically run around like Keystone cops. Tensions are high between the women, and Candida and Erica trade verbal jabs. Eventually they piece together some crappy package, and everyone talks about how pleased they are with their final product. Both teams jet back to the Branson estate high on confidence. And maybe opium. But probably just confidence.
As the girls’ team gathers to present their final product to Richard, Candida pipes in once again on how she isn’t pleased with how this mission went, just in case she hadn’t made it clear the first thousand times. I’ll admit, however, that I agree with her. The finished morning-after kit is pretty base, and if I were a frequent traveler on the London-Hong Kong flight, well, this wouldn’t make me give up my allegiance to other airlines. Packaged in a really lovely Chinese-patterned fabric purse, the girls’ team has assembled face wipes, moisturizer, deodorant, and mints. So basically they went to Rite Aid. What about those items was the cause of tension between teammates? A poorly executed task, without a doubt. After leaving the presentation, Jermaine, in a textbook demonstration of denial, claims that the presentation went “phenomenally.” Except that it didn’t.
In contrast, the boys’ team was able to assemble a package that might actually be something more than throwaway crap to travelers. Although they chose not to take the time to see the Buddha, their presentation was far more cohesive and useful. They came up with the idea of attaching a reflective mirrored surface to the back of the television, which evidently pops out. Why it pops out, I don’t know. We just have to trust that it does. They also included personalized fortune cookies, with pithy little sayings like “It’s not the size of your carry-on, it’s how it fits in the bin.” Cute, right? An outright lie (hear that, gentlemen?), but cute. Finally, the object that makes this the better package: the neck pillow. I mean, it’s still not great, but I’d toss out the Rite Aid special after a flight, but I’d keep a neck pillow. They even went so far as finding a way to attach a Virgin label to the pillow, giving it that added dash of authenticity.
As the girls’ team files back in and joins Sara and the boys, Richard, in his sweetly inimitable way, finds nice things to say about both presentations. He thinks that the idea of a morning amenity kit is a good one, and something that he thinks Virgin airlines should seriously consider. For the boys’ team, he thinks the mirror idea is brilliant, the fortune cookies are great fun, and the pillow is extremely comfortable. Drum roll…the boys win this one. This being the case, he needs to have a conversation with the girls’ team.
Since Jermaine was the team leader on this task, he not only finds himself on the chopping block, but also has to choose whom to put up for elimination next to him. Based on Candida’s constant attempts to undermine his authority and her lack of commitment to his leadership, she’s the one. Predictably she yells at him a lot for this decision, but the decision is made nonetheless. She also manages to drag Nancy McKeon/Erica into the fight, calling her a prison warden. Channeling Toni from Paradise Hotel, Candida vows “it’s on!”
Baton Down The Hatches
This elimination challenge, Richard promises – or maybe threatens – is even more dangerous than the previous one. Since the team failed the in-flight challenge, they have to participate in an on-wing challenge. Two planes will be sent into the sky, and each person up for elimination has to climb up on the wings. Furthermore, a baton (or, in Richard’s charming Brit-speak, a “batten”) must be passed between the two planes. However, since Jermaine is a large-framed guy, he’s too big to participate in this challenge on his own behalf. He needs to choose someone to act as his proxy. He chooses Erica, confident in her abilities. If it were me, I’d be wishing he were a little less confident in me so that I didn’t have to stand on top of a moving plane, but whatever. He’s also hoping that the fact that Erica and Candida have had problems will fire up Erica’s competitive spirit enough to make her really do the best job possible.
Before we can get into the challenge, we see Jennifer (has she been on the show before this?), crying on the phone to her mother. Jennifer was part of the group that didn’t have to do the hot air balloon challenge, for which she was eternally grateful. But as she sees that these stunts are not just Fear Factor-style gross, or Apprentice-style mentally taxing, but rather physically dangerous, she is unsure of how badly she wants to continue on in this game. This becomes an issue later, so don’t think I’m recapping some throwaway scene here, which is what I first thought this was when I was watching it.
As Erica and Candida prepare to get into the cropdusters, Richard announces that one of them has to volunteer to be on the plane that will be flying upside-down. This is necessary for the baton-passing portion of the task. The point of the baton is to prove that even in an adversarial situation such as this, teams require, well, teamwork. In that true Jo Polniaczek spirit, Erica offers to assume the inverted position. The girls get on their Snoopy Red Baron suits and climb into the planes. It deserves to be mentioned that Richard also gets strapped in to the top of the wings, and flies right along side the girls. This guy’s adrenaline junkie status isn’t an affectation. He’s right there with them doing the stunts, which I think pretty much rules.
Once the flights reach some predetermined altitude, the girls have to unharness themselves from their seats and climb onto the wing of the plane. Facing wind speeds of 110+ mph and having a minimum of safety equipment holding them to the plane, it’s a daunting task. Both girls squelch their fears and succeed in settling in on the top of the plane. Erica’s plane can only stay inverted for thirty seconds at a time, so she has to try to pass the baton to Candida very quickly. They get two attempts at this. The first attempt is unsuccessful, although I can’t figure out how that’s Erica’s fault. Her arms only stretch so far. If the pilot doesn’t get her close enough…well, that’s just plain not her fault. It’s a non-issue, though, as the second try works out just fine, and both girls perform admirably. When the planes land, they forget their differences and hug, agreeing that they’ve been through quite a bonding experience together.
However, the successful completion of the task leaves no clear candidate for elimination, leaving Richard with the unenviable task of determining who, in a very close contest, should be going home.
Once again, the cast assembles on the tarmac. As was the case in the last elimination, the safe members board the plane, and Candida and Jermaine are left standing outside, waiting to find out the destination on the tickets that Richard hands them. He tells Jermaine that he’s an inspiring leader, but sometimes that just isn’t enough, and he should never underestimate his competition the way he did in this task. As for Candida, she’s strong-willed and driven, good entrepreneurial traits. But she needs to shut up once in a while, and listen to what other people have to say. Their tickets in hand, we’re again only treated to their reactions. Carbon copy of the last elimination: the girl cries, the boy keeps a stiff upper lip. So was it a red herring again this time? Yep. Who followed Richard onto the plane? Both Candida and Jermaine. You’re thinking “wait, what?”, aren’t you? Yeah, so was I. But remember that whole throwaway scene with Jennifer calling her mother, saying how frightened she was about the stunts they were doing? Well, that being the case, Jennifer decided to sacrifice her position in the game. She asked to be sent home in the place of either Candida or Jermaine, and Richard complied. I guess it was a noble thing for her to do, although I think it’s a shame that she took the place of someone else that tried out for this show who would have been willing to do whatever it took to win. But whatever, it’s a bonus for me, since it’s one less Barbie doll whose name I’ll have to remember.
Next week: the team jets off to Africa, to navigate Victoria Falls in a barrel. And maybe we’ll get to learn everyone else’s name. But probably not.
Remember those donations I mentioned? Let’s make this happen. Amanda@fansofrealitytv.com