Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Apprentice Endgames Near: It's Martha Stewart Three, Donald Trump a Dynamite Two

Maybe I'm nuts, and maybe I'm the only person left in America still watching, but I'm going to come right out and say that this has been a great season to be an Apprentice fan.

It's been double the action for starters, with Martha Stewart's lighter-touched and homier designed spin-off on Wednesday nights (NBC) and Donald Trump's "You're Not Tough Enough For This Town, You're Fired" tough-as-nails variety holding down its usual Thursday night slot.

Allow me, if you will, to prove why Martha's edition was surprisingly effective and entertaining and then I'll get down to the nitty grit on the approaching finales of both Mark Burnett-produced editions.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart serves as an unabashed effort to rehabilitate Stewart's post-lock up image and cram down our throats at all opportunities that Martha Stewart: The Brand is as kick ass and take names as they come. And it's a yummy brand too, we're assured! All of this, of course, is fine and to be expected. After four seasons of Donald Trump: The Water and Donald Trump: The Breast Pump (okay, one of those might be made up) we weary viewers are well attuned to the heavy handed mauling of cross-promotional product branding blitzkrieg. In fact, the incessant commercial-in-segment followed by actual-commercial-segment featuring the same exact product seemed to be somewhat toned down this season. Or maybe that's just the Digital Video Recorder talking, who knows?

While the opening credits of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart are syrupy cheese ("Sweet dreams are made of these," we get it!) and Martha herself occasionally a little over-scripted, the overall vibe of the show is lighter, airier, and often more fun than The Don's original. It's the little things, as a glossy Martha Stewart Living media product might advise, and I must say that Martha hits them all just right. The show's format has a looser feel to it, which allows Martha and her executive "helpers" (including Stewart's daughter, Alexis) to banter entertainingly about the Apprentice wannabes. Post-firing – which is a much more civil "you're just not a good fit" affair as compared to Donald's tense and tensely lit boardroom – the gang again has a good little chat about the state of affairs before Martha writes a note to the week's unfortunate send-off. I know I'm not the only one who became able at reading between the hand-written lines to discern the polite screw-offs from the genuine well wishes!

A spin-off Apprentice also allowed the audience to be treated to a slightly different brand (can't get away from that word, sorry) of tasks that teams were judged upon each week. A serious effort was made, it seems, to inject creativity into the process, which made most episodes a generally engaging affair. An early test had both teams writing and producing a children's book, for example.

I want to be on a writer's version of The Apprentice, I wanted to shout out at several points! Who would run that show, though? Maybe combine it with The Contender and have Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard coach me through late night, instant coffee fueled writing action!

But I digress.

Reality shows, in the end, always boil down to casting. Fortunately, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart had the requisite lunatic on board to demand a return to the set each week. Jim, an ad executive from Pennsylvania, is the peculiar variety of maniac that allows him to be smart and hyper enough to win it all, but he walks obscenely close to the self destruct button at all moments. A reality television superstar, in other words! His antics include quoting Sun Tzu, prancing on conference tables like a monkey, hawking gourmet dip during a sales task by telling women that it's good for bunions and that they should rub it on their feet, and generally screaming himself hoarse each week. He's also an effective manipulator, if uber-obvious to the audience, and a self-described super-champion of The Apprentice gaming arts.

Jim's also managed to squeeze through to the final three, which we'll get to in a moment.

The now veteran Trump-led edition of The Apprentice started slow-ish but picked up steam as the season wore on. What was immediately obvious was a new emphasis on talented job applicants after a glaringly lackluster group suffered the audience through the destined-not-to-return Book Smarts versus Street Smarts season. In the end, the change of direction has really paid off as we're left with two of the best candidates ambition and toil can buy: Randal, a consulting firm owner from New Jersey and Rebecca, a youthful (she's 23!) but effective financial journalist from Chicago. Along the way there was the usual disaster-waiting-to-happen countdown (Markus… oh, Markus) and a few cliques and broken alliances that you come to expect on this sort of program.

One new development that popped up on both editions of The Apprentice this season was the multiple firing. Who will ever forget, for instance, what can only be referred to as the Dick's Sporting Goods Day Massacre? The Don sent four players packing in one fell swoop after Team Excel's fixation on a batting cage caused the average sales in their store to drop instead of improve! Trump seems to be gaining a taste for the multi-fire as he later knocked off Felisha and the hardnosed Alla to bring the competition down to the final two.

Another notable trend on the Donald side was the frequent replacement of old time executive helper George with Bill Rancic, the original Apprentice. Perhaps this is a prelude to a permanent switch? While George has a feisty, old school of hard knocks flavor, Rancic clearly brings a different kind of charisma, so don't be surprised to see him more on the new edition of The Apprentice, which will reportedly take place in Los Angeles.

Enough of all that, though. Let's get into predictions and analysis and snarky-yet-precious asides.

On the Martha Stewart side, it's initially very easy to pick Dawna as the clear frontrunner as she's the only clear adult left. She's organized, level-headed, bright, and is the serious sort of worker bee you see rising in the ranks of companies every day. We've already mentioned Jim, so I'll just add here that he enjoys annoying Dawna as he feels it "takes her off her game." Meanwhile, Bethany – again on first appearance – seems like Jim's co-dependent, wild-eyed sister. They nag each other, they bitch each other out (in front of clients!), and they whisper conspiratorially together… which mostly involves Jim pumping her full of the Sun Tzu-fueled pop military theory of the week.

The picture clouds up from there, however. Bethany has been remarkably strong of late, Jim is highly creative and bright for all his insanity, and Dawna strikes as more middle manager than Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia megastar.

Who do I pick? Oh hell, let's say Bethany. I just can't see it being Jim and Dawna is too safe.

We're already into the final round on the original Apprentice, with the live finale to air next Thursday. Once again, the final two must manage a large-scale event replete with big name corporate sponsors, VIPs, and a slew of logistical challenges. A surprising and positive tweak was made, however, in that the final Project Managers were allowed to choose for themselves the three already-fired candidates that would serve as the employees of each team. In past years, a motley crew of misfits and camera hungry screw-ups were emphasized in the hope that good television would ensue. Again, the direction of quality-over-mess here is a winner.

It seems as though nature and humankind will conspire nonetheless to throw major screws into the machinery. Rebecca's charity event emcee, Joe Piscipo (remember Jerry from Jersey on SNL?), may have to back out due to union snafus while the usually precise Randal may end up in over his head, literally, when his charity softball event gets rained out. Never trust the weatherman, the wise man said. And he got struck by lightning!

Rebecca v. Randal is a tough, tough choice, as The Don himself might say. Pure demographics might be unconsciously relied upon here, even though they shouldn't. Rebecca's frightfully young, though she displays leadership skills and savvy well beyond her years. The first female Apprentice was chosen just last season, while a minority candidate has never yet been made, which may in some small way favor the African American Randal. As for Randal, he's obviously scary smart (he's a Rhodes Scholar) and was universally respected and admired by all who worked with him. Which is highly unusual for Apprentice-land, to say the least!

I don't think the racial/demo factors would come into play if there were any other obvious reasons to cling to. While a disastrous final event might factor in (they usually don't become a huge factor), it looks to be a neck-and-neck call.

Which means I choose Randal.

I'll also be choosing to catch the final episodes of both shows. That I can guarantee you.

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