The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC) has always been an orgy of rebranding — not the fun kind of orgy, but the fear-soaked type where dead-eyed participants go through the motions hoping no one will notice they don’t belong. Forgotten D-listers, many with years of experience selling themselves to the public, remake themselves as philanthropists and “entrepreneurs” (but really as advertisers and reality stars) while hawking the ware of the week.
The image makeovers extend to the series’s host and his “advisers.” Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arguably made the most headlines during his eight years in office for allegations of sexual harassment and assault from several women and fathering a child with his family’s housekeeper — a revelation that led to the separation between the bodybuilder turned movie star and his wife, Maria Shriver. In The New Celebrity Apprentice, which premiered in a two-hour installment on Monday night, Schwarzenegger plays up his seriousness again after spending part of his post-governance years making two sequels to The Expendables. At his side in the boardroom are his grim-faced nephew Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, transforming from entertainment lawyer to entertainer, and Tyra Banks, who has parlayed screaming at ostensible protégés into a mini-moguldom.
The aggregated branding exercises add up to a human centipede of infomercials, without the cohesive arguments that make those 30-minute ads for insomniacs weirdly hypnotic despite their repetition. And yet, somehow, The Celebrity Apprentice works — or works well enough for some. Over a decade-plus on The Apprentice and its Celebrity continuation, Donald Trump successfully rehabbed his reputation from serial self-bankrupter to gold-toilet rich (if not strictly in letter, certainly in spirit).
The primary emotion elicited by The New Celebrity Apprentice is disbelief that any of it continues to convince. Even by reality-show standards, the competition feels grubby and cheap — a scam wrought by hustlers too lazy to do it properly. Product placement is the entire point of the series, since the contenders spend hours creating the most broadly appealing commercial that effectively parrots a manufacturer’s talking points. Likewise, it’s difficult to get the sense that any of the has-beens on the show truly care about their charities, since they aggressively pass the role of project manager — the most reliable avenue toward winning money for their chosen nonprofits, but also a target on one’s back if things go awry — around like a hot potato until it lands on a victim too resigned to fight back.
But it’s Schwarzenegger who’s most responsible for making The New Celebrity Apprentice such an unfunny joke — as was Trump before him. That’s because, for all the Governator’s mountains of millions, there’s nothing in his Botox-frozen expression or his too-shiny navy suits that commands authority. He’s a Tyra Banks, not a RuPaul. Sure, Schwarzenegger’s nailed the canned butch talk: “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And make sure that everyone else gets fired first.” And he’s not above beating on a little guy to make himself look bigger, like berating contestant Jon Lovitz, a longtime acquaintance, in front of everyone for calling him “Arnold” instead of “Governor.” Seated and swaggerless throughout, Schwarzenegger is nearly impossible to view the way one of the competitors remembers him from her childhood: a “tall, fine, handsome man — a warrior.” Here, he’s just another guy trying desperately to fill a throne.
And so we’re left wondering what all these makeovers are even for. If you believe The New Celebrity Apprentice, Schwarzenegger’s years in Sacramento make him a sharp-eyed arbiter of chewing-gum commercials. It’s notable that, although governing California is his highest-profile job to date, the show hasn’t yet brought up any of his achievements in that role: say, his 23 percent approval rating when he left office, which saw him tied with his predecessor for last place in the state’s history, or the fiscal mess that he’d vowed to clean up but exploded instead. The revolving door between capitalism, elected office, and celebrity stardom — greased in large part by The Apprentice — is helping Schwarzenegger continue failing upward. But there’s no need to fall — if that’s even possible — for executive producer Mark Burnett’s latest con.