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Adventures in capitalism

Trump is both the host and prize as 16 vie to become "The Apprentice."

January 08, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

What if you could have it all, just like Donald Trump?

Would you gild and mirror every inch of your penthouse apartment, stopping just short of your statuesque girlfriend? Would you emblazon your name on all your possessions, in the manner of a grade-school camper, despite the low incidence of skyscrapers and helicopters getting lost in the laundry? Would you adopt the Trumpian hairstyle? The petulant moue? Would you executive produce your very own reality show and serve as both host and ultimate prize?

Of course, the question, as it is splashed across the credits of NBC's new reality show "The Apprentice," is purely rhetorical. For the 16 contestants vying for a dream job with the Trump Organization, success in business and life is apparently best gauged by the high rococo ornamentation to square-footage ratio of one's prime real estate holdings. By this measure, the mogul formerly known as The Donald is not just any Master of the Universe (though, in a comic book world, he might be depicted as Acquisitor, nefarious view-blocker), he is a capitalist messiah, the American dream made flesh.

Needless to say, the 16 contestants embarking on what is essentially a 15-week job interview, with prizes, are a weird, if passably telegenic, bunch.

"The Apprentice" is the latest televised tourney from "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett, who this time pits eight men and eight women (divided by gender into opposing teams) against each other in a series of incrementally challenging business bake-offs. Over the course of the 15 weeks, the contestants will be assigned tasks incorporating different aspects of business, including sales, marketing, promotions, deal-making and management. Each team's progress will then be assessed by a member of Trump's staff, as the master overflies the city in his personalized chopper, gazing down at his less-than-stellar creation.

At the end of each episode, the team that has made the most money will be granted a reward (in the first episode, this consists of a tour of Trump's penthouse and chat with his sexy girlfriend), and the losing team will report to the boardroom, where Trump will personally fire one of its members. The last person standing will earn the chance to serve as president of one of Trump's companies for a period of one year, at a salary of $250,000.

The real prize, however, is the opportunity to study at the master's side. (Lesson No. 1 for future billionaires: When touring Trump's Versailles-like apartment, do not inquire of his model girlfriend how one cleans a dwelling of this size. She really has no idea.)

The show's premise is a retrofit of sorts. "Survivor," as Burnett has explained, was inspired by the highly competitive world of American business, in which eliminating the competition is a large part of getting ahead. And "Manhattan is the real jungle," Trump explains in the show's introductory sequence, illustrating what happens to those the metropolis "chews up and spits out" with a shot of a homeless man.

If these definitions of success and failure (Candyland, with jets, or a winter-long snooze on a park bench) seem overly simplistic, the contestants don't seem to mind or even notice. Culled from a pool of more than 200,000 hopefuls, the aspiring moguls tend, for the most part, toward the naive, the young, and the suspiciously well-toned. A few of them seem to have gleaned their knowledge of corporate protocol and attire exclusively from watching reruns of "Melrose Place." Others, in particular those "self-made" young 'uns hailing from exotically under-populated areas -- Boise, Idaho, and New Richmond, Wisc., for instance -- lend a Jed Clampetty flavor to the mix.

Despite possessing a smattering of PhDs, MBAs and even an MD between them, the boys and girls of "The Apprentice" demonstrate in the early episodes about as much business acumen as the cast of UPN's "America's Next Top Model." )

In the first episode, the teams are charged with the tasks of thinking up a name for themselves and setting up a lemonade stand. Both jobs prove surprisingly -- if entertainingly -- difficult for this elite group.

The men settle fairly quickly on the generically meaningless VersaCorps, then hit the streets with a few cans of Country Time purchased at Duane Reed. After an emotional argument over the name of their team -- "Donald's Darlings" is thrown out as a possibility in favor of Protege Corp. -- the women do the same. First, though, they try "to get on the same page as to where everyone is supposed to be." Or, as native speakers of English might describe it, they get lost and freak out.

In terms of pure, element-defying excitement, the show is no match for "Survivor," which took the cutthroat ethos of corporate America and stripped it down to its basest, most primal essence.

Then again, watching a caffeine-crazed guy in a business suit spend 20 minutes trying to divest a pedestrian of a grand in return for a Styrofoam cup full of artificial flavorings ("If you write me a check for $1,000 for that glass of lemonade, then you are going to experience the American dream") may not be all that exciting, but it sure is funny.


'The Apprentice'

Where: NBC

When: Premieres 8:30-10 tonight

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Executive producers, Mark Burnett and Donald Trump

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