The Apprentice: Harder to Kill Than We Thought

The seventh season of The Apprentice premieres tonight on NBC, in a celebrity version. For now I'll put aside the usual complaints about the low wattage of the "stars" we typically see on reality shows, and simply point out that The Apprentice has drifted about as far from its original premise as it is possible to go. At least once on every episode, Donald Trump could be counted on to refer to the process as a "job interview," but no one really believes that the likes of Marilu Henner, Lennox Lewis, Nadia Comaneci, and Gene Simmons are going to drop what they're currently doing (or in the case of more than a few of them, what they're not doing) in order to sit at the right hand of The Donald. It's now merely a game, in every sense. Photo Gallery: Celebrity Apprentice

Even the most popular shows wither with time, but in the case of The Apprentice, it's surprising to realize how quickly that process happened. This coming Tuesday is only the fourth anniversary of the show's premiere. Trump and his would-be minions in Season One were a legitimate sensation, and the series looked like it could prop up Thursdays for NBC for years to come. But by January 2005, many of its original fans had already drifted off; by the following January it was in legitimate trouble; and by last winter it was practically forgotten, left to wait until the NFL ended and then buried on late Sunday night. Things were so bad by last year that Trump, no doubt worried about the humiliation of cancellation, announced he was quitting and wouldn't do another season (clearly he rethought things). He even stopped referring to his baby as the number one show on television, which was never true and became hilariously less true with each passing season.

How did such an out-of-the-box hit go so wrong so fast? The first season had the same good fortune that Mark Burnett's other major reality franchise Survivor had in its own debut season: a highly memorable cast. The tasks during that season seemed fresh and showcased actual business skills. Without the examples of previous seasons to guide them, competitors had to be more creative; and since no one yet knew what sort of arguments Trump would respond to, the boardroom sessions where players were fired did not yet have the predictable rituals of later seasons. The second season, while it had slightly lower ratings, was still very successful and in some ways had an even better cast from a pure entertainment standpoint. If there was an ominous note anywhere to be found, it was in the highly negative reaction to the season's three-hour finale, which would have been way too long even if Trump had any capacity to run a live broadcast.

Things began to go wrong for The Apprentice with Season Three, in the winter and spring of 2005. For starters, there was almost no break between the second and third seasons, and many fans were beginning to overdose. At the start of the season, teams were divided along educational lines: players with elite academic backgrounds competing against those who had no college degrees at all. This setup took much of the suspense out of the game, since it was obvious Trump was never going to give an important job to anyone without a degree. A problem that was becoming apparent by this time was that The Apprentice was a hard show to pull off any surprises on. The tasks began to seem repetitive, and the firings lost all suspense as Trump fell into a pattern of routinely firing the player in charge on that week's losing team, even if he or she had carried a solid track record to that point.

Despite the signs of weakness, NBC made the inexplicable decision to greenlight a new version of The Apprentice starring Martha Stewart, which would run simultaneously with the Trump show. I thought then that Stewart might have been workable in alternating seasons with Trump, but both at the same time was too much of a mediocre thing. Martha's version was dead on arrival and the Trump version was irreparably damaged by the too-similar copycat. The fifth season brought a change to the show's permanent cast, as Trump's daughter Ivanka began appearing on occasion in place of boardroom lieutenant Carolyn Kepcher (who was later fired from the Trump organization for reasons never really explained). Most fans liked Ivanka well enough, but the fact that she was on the show by way of nepotism was always hard to ignore. A bigger problem was that while Ivanka had a solid education and real potential aside from the advantages of her last name, she had fewer objective achievements than most of those she was helping to judge.

One of the ironies of The Apprentice is that as the show faded into irrelevance, the caliber of candidates continued to get better and better, to the point where I wondered why most of those on Season Six would disrupt what seemed to be fantastic careers to sleep in backyard tents and compete for a worse job than the ones they were giving up. One candidate last season, Michelle, asked herself the same question and walked away from the process rather than submit to a humiliating grilling from Trump and his kids (Donald Jr. also joined in the judging fun by last year).

Even after being left off the fall schedule, perhaps in an attempt to get people to start craving its return, Season Six was an utter disaster, one so poorly thought out that its eventual winner, a lawyer named Stefani, had literally gotten no chance to prove her leadership ability at any point. The planning and performance of the tasks, which were once the key elements to any episode, were often dispensed with in just a few minutes. What took their place? Typical reality show backbiting, lots more of Trump and his whims, and a lot less of the candidates, every one of whom remained incredibly anonymous. If the decline of The Apprentice had to be summed up in one sentence, it would be "the show stopped working when it stopped being The Apprentice and became The Donald Trump Variety Hour."

If there's one thing successful reality shows have in common, it is that they put the emphasis squarely on the competition and the competitors. None, not even American Idol, believe that they are primarily about showcasing the hosts. There may be counter-exceptions on a lower level -- Hell's Kitchen probably wouldn't work without Gordon Ramsay -- but when you think about Survivor and Dancing with the Stars, Jeff Probst and Tom Bergeron aren't the people who come to mind first. As The Apprentice became more and more about Trump and his family, the less watchable it was.

I'm not sure how the performance of tasks will work with this celebrity version, since it stands to reason that being famous would be a huge distraction when it comes to carrying out the mundane duties familiar to The Apprentice. But one thing that might help the show is that viewers won't have to struggle anymore to remember who is on. Trump won't be able to overshadow his candidates to the same extent, and perhaps the whole thing will now be looked at as akin to something like Celebrity Fit Club, where the fun is more about the mere presence of the stars rather than what they're trying to accomplish.

But it's still quite a comedown that a program that starred a billionaire and once featured MBAs and other high achievers putting their knowledge and savvy to good use can now be compared with the silliest reality shows out there.