Liberal grief in the wake of Trump’s election has occasioned binges galore: binge-drinking, binge-eating, binge-weed-smoking (marijuana’s legalization being the only positive juridical event of 2016), and not least, binge-watching. Since November, Trump’s rise to televisual dominance on NBC’s long-running game show The Apprentice—preceding his political ascendancy by more than a decade—has become fodder for many think pieces mining the linkages between American reality TV and US political reality. How, some commentators ask, did The Apprentice predict or determine what happened on November 8, 2016? And what, wonder others, can The Apprentice tell us about the unfolding aftermath of that sad day? Reality television, in this view, is the gaudy crystal ball whose debased insights the Wire- and Mad Men–viewing progressive public failed to heed. Critics must accordingly leap to their couches to binge Trump TV for all our sakes, as we descend ever further into the cultural and political abyss.
When I proposed to binge-watch Season 1 of The Apprentice for this column, I, too, touted my own martyrdom. Subjecting myself to 15 hours of that man’s voice (not to mention face and hair) would be hellish, I told my editor, but I would emerge from the experience with clear answers, concrete takeaways. Secretly, I was exhausted, and thought that the game show format would make for easy consumption—even if it did feature Trump. Which is to say, I anticipated that I would not be shocked or surprised by the flow of this particular binge.
For the most part, I was not. The show unfolded more or less as I would have expected. The male contestants bro’d down and covered each other’s rumps. The female contestants cat-fought their way to implosion. The competition culminated in (spoiler alert!) the selection of a mediocre white man over a host of imminently more qualified candidates. Throughout, Trump helicoptered in and out of the New York City skyline to plug his money-hemorrhaging businesses, golf in a Trump baseball cap, and host Jessica Simpson at his casino down the shore. Any grabbing of pussy occurred off screen.
If one thing truly surprised me in revisiting this “simpler” moment in Trump’s public past, it was not any retroactive light shed on the businessman’s enduring sliminess or future political success. It was the structuring absence of the man himself. Trump, it turns out, is barely on The Apprentice. As a brand, he is ever-present. But as a body, his role is negligible. (Given Trump’s reported plans to continue spending significant time at both his armored Manhattan panopticon and his garish Palm Beach resort after taking office, I suspect that this absent presence will also characterize his tenure at the White House. The higher the stakes and the greater the pressure, the longer he will, most likely, hole up in his phallic penthouse, firing off poorly composed tweets about Alec Baldwin’s “totally biased” performances on SNL.)
Trump, it turns out, is barely on The Apprentice. As a brand, he is ever-present. But as a body, his role is negligible.
Trump is most visible in the show’s pilot episode, which opens with a montage of aerial shots of Manhattan skyscrapers (read: prime real estate) interspersed with images of the hustle and bustle of commercial life in the Big Apple. An unmistakable voice narrates this establishing sequence. “This island is the real jungle,” it tells us, framing The Apprentice as Survivor’s urban counterpart. “If you’re not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out, but if you work hard, you can really hit it big—and I mean, really big,” the voiceover continues, in signature prose.
Moments later, we meet its speaker: Trump, cruising the city streets in a black limousine. From within the limo, he stiffly introduces himself as the “largest real estate developer in New York,” before alluding to his own prior hardships in business—chiefly his immense debt. “I fought back and I won, big league,” he relates, as though debt were trench warfare. “I used my brain, I used my negotiating skills, and I worked it all out,” he explains. This vague and inflated, not to mention fictional, bootstrap narrative provokes the show’s core question: who among the contestants will be willing to “fight” and “win” for the opportunity to apprentice themselves to the Master by running one of his companies?
From this point forward, the show primarily focuses on the players, a deeply basic assortment of entrepreneurial young men and women. They are ritually garbed in the boxy suits, lace camisoles, and spike heels endemic to mid-aughts business fashion. Housed in the Trump Tower in a Real World–reminiscent apartment, the gradually dwindling group encounters Trump usually twice per episode, both times in the shadowy, wood-paneled environs of the infamous boardroom. There, alongside his henchmen—the helmet-headed Carolyn Kepcher and the creepily avuncular George H. Ross—the Master succinctly explains each of the group’s challenges.
Toward the close of each episode, he summarily “fires” the biggest loser to emerge from the task’s completion. At the scene of these firings—though rarely elsewhere on the show—Trump often seems to go off-script. His caustic asides and one-liners directed at contestants echo his debate and campaign trail persona: that of the rogue candidate who rejects the teleprompter and its canned “party lines.” Yet on The Apprentice Trump’s punch lines benefit from a technique lacking in live performance: editing. With the postproduction intervention of a team of experts, the show often manages to cut the future President into something resembling civility. It’s interesting to behold, in these “unpresidented” times, the spectacle of an implicitly dickish but explicitly polite Trump. By today’s standards, the impression is positively Victorian.
The Apprentice’s contestants, though, benefit from no such “presidential” editing, for what would be the fun in that? Instead, they’re given the opposite treatment: each player’s zaniness, bitchiness, obsequiousness, density, or straight-up vapidity is produced into caricature, helped along by everyone’s complicity in self-stereotyping. (Needless to say, this is part and parcel of the reality TV genre.) The standout among them is Sam, a “Business Director” who throughout the season’s first several episodes functions as a kind of avatar of Trump himself.
Trump explains to the group that the season will begin as a battle of the sexes, with contestants divided into two male- and female-gendered “corporations.” Trump pits Sam and the other male contestants against the women’s team, which includes the endlessly villainized Omarosa, as well as the fake-nice, Meg Ryan–esque Amy and the brash, Philly-accented Heidi. The competition: which group can make the most money selling Styrofoam cups of watered-down lemonade on New York City street corners? As the “girls” perform flushed femininity to a steadily increasing profit margin, the “guys” lack a clear strategy and choose dead locations, falling miserably behind.
Wild-eyed and inspired, Sam is convinced that he can secure the men’s victory by conning a pedestrian into buying a $1000 cup of lemonade. His inspiration for this risky approach is, of course, Trump, whom Sam worships with the passion of a true disciple. In a cutaway interview segment, Sam breathlessly intones, “Donald Trump has got people paying top dollar for real estate in Manhattan—in New York, New York—where other people are getting fifty percent of what he’s getting. Donald Trump is selling lemonade for $1000 a cup.” The veracity of the claim is beyond questionable; the belief in the claim is fervent and all too real. In the end, after squandering valuable minutes of his team’s time in delusional tête-à-têtes with potential buyers, Sam’s uncalculated risk reaps no reward.
Back in the boardroom, the men are apprised of their failure, while the women are rewarded with a visit to Trump’s hideous, gold-plated penthouse for a tantalizing glimpse of how the 1 Percent lives. One man must be “fired,” and the team unanimously agrees that Sam is the weakest link and should be sent packing. Trump asks the men if this is because “Sam is going over the edge,” and they concur. Dramatically, Sam rises from his seat and makes a last-ditch effort to remain on the show by professing his absolute devotion to Trump. “If I’m your president, Mr. Trump,” he declares, “I will not break the rules of your organization … If you have to punch me in the stomach and tell me to sit down and shut up, I’ll shut up. And I’ll learn. Mr. Trump, I don’t want to work for anybody else in this country.”
Sam’s prostration leads Trump and his colleagues to reframe the most incompetent member of the men’s team as a “risk-taker” much like the real estate magnate himself. Sam is saved, and David—the most highly educated, and thus most suspicious, member of the men’s team—is fired. Trump advises Sam that in moving forward with the game, “You gotta be careful, ’cause you’re a wild man. You’ll do great, or you’ll be a total disaster.” Trump thus gives Sam a chance to lead. Sam turns out to be a total disaster.
Sam’s character arc ends in Episode 3, when—after (literally) sleeping his way through the show’s second episode—the men appoint him as the team’s “project manager,” in a successful effort to highlight the undeniability of his ineptitude and oust him from the game. After Sam leads his team to a third loss, Trump ironically observes that, given the men’s consistent failure, “I’m starting to think that I may never hire a man again.” Better still are Trump’s parting words to Sam as the latter pleads to stay in the game. “Isn’t that just rhetoric? … Isn’t it over, Sam?” Trump rhetorically asks, as he fires the “maverick,” a character manifestly kept on the show to drive up ratings.
Last November, I texted my parents and brother to tell them I couldn’t wait to see the headline “You’re Fired” upon Trump’s loss. (“I want to see him personally and professionally destroyed,” my brother replied, with characteristic concision.) Given these thwarted desires, watching Sam’s “firing” gave me a strange feeling of satisfaction. It was, uncannily, as though Trump were firing himself.
But my sense of rectitude—however unheimlich—was short-lived, because Sam’s departure marked a return to the status quo: a (TV) world rigged in favor of “average” straight white men and against people of color and women. After a fourth win in Episode 4, the women—who are, indeed, “stronger together” despite their undying mutual hatred—are split up, as both teams are subject to a “corporate reshuffle” that results in two mixed-gender corporations. From this point forward, the women drop like flies. Chided in the boardroom for being “overly aggressive” (Heidi, Episode 5), “abrasive” (Omarosa, Episode 6), and “obnoxious” (Tammy, Episode 7), or, alternately, for taking “so much crap” (Jessie, Episode 6) and failing to “fight” to stay in the game (Kristy, Episode 5), the show’s female contestants are fired one after the next in Episodes 5 through 11.
In the end, Amy is the last woman standing alongside the bland Bill, the soulless but easily manipulated Nick, and the competent and composed Harvard MBA Kwame. In Episode 13, these “final four” are closely interviewed (verbally assaulted, really) by four of Trump’s executives as an easy means of separating the wheat from the chaff and identifying the “final two.” Slamming her appearance and ignoring her ability, the panel of execs unilaterally and misogynistically rejects Amy’s candidacy. Amy, says one male exec, “irritated the hell out of me,” before another pronounces the season’s sole remaining female contestant a “Stepford Wife” with an “empty personality.” Even Norma Foerderer, the only female exec present, throws Amy under the bus, opining that the latter “like[s] being the enthusiastic young girl with the big smile … and the perfect teeth,” and that she thus, “get[s] on my nerves after a while.” Sadly, this scathing assessment comes as no big surprise, since the season’s women were already selling each other out even before the so-called “corporate reshuffle.”
Just as Season 11 of Top Chef gave us the victory of the unremarkable Nicholas Elmi over deserved fan fave Nina Compton, Season 1 of The Apprentice ends with Trump’s choice of the forgettable, and yet now famous, Bill Rancic over Kwame Jackson. Kwame’s grace under pressure is deemed lazy by Trump and his racist boardroom cronies, who collectively agree to go with Bill despite the latter’s inability to be picked out of a lineup.
Bill, a Paul Ryan type who, unlike Ryan, was quietly ambivalent about Trump during election season, now says he thinks Trump will “be a great president, certainly.” See Kwame for a much-needed reality check; in October, the Season 1 runner-up said, “I have no interest in supporting someone who I think is, at his core, racist.”
So Season 1 of The Apprentice concludes by affirming the everyday racism and sexism of the real-life business world. No big surprise there. But at least there was some pleasurable comeuppance in the ousting of Sam, the season’s resident Trump-like maverick. Alas, the next four years of reality will offer no such catharsis. A guy on the street tried to sell us a $1000 cup of watered-down lemonade, and we put him in the White House.