It is fitting, and rather illuminating, that the return of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” hinged on a scene where eight women are forced to quarrel with each other while two men stare at them impassively. Fitting, because it was deeply unsettling, which seems to be the defining emotion of our era. But it hit a little too close to home, having to watch a group of women split under the scrutiny and pressure of a bombastic, accented politician and his richly dressed scion. It was especially punishing to have to watch the women sell each other out twice: the new season of “Celebrity Apprentice” packages two hourlong episodes back-to-back, making for a mega-episode with two judging and elimination scenes. In an unwieldy episode that otherwise felt strained, the elimination scenes where the women faced the judges were unusually compelling, mostly because of how excruciating they were.
There was something allegorically dramatic about them, though. The women were mostly dressed in an array of jewel tones; the room and furnishings around them were totally black. They look already swallowed up by something. And though guest judge Tyra Banks — no stranger to judging and elimination scenes — is also sitting at the boardroom table, due to camera angles and editing, it’s possible to forget she’s there. Instead, the viewer is forced to contemplate the imbalance between the eight colorfully dressed and nervous women opposite Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his nephew — quite the archetypal Mini-Me — Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger.
It’s hard to watch “The Apprentice” and just watch “The Apprentice.” The show is stacked with signifiers that point to the nadir of the 2016 election, harassment allegations, controversial business practices, and investigation by the press. And because last night’s attempt to reframe the show is, simply, quite bad, it is difficult to think of much else besides all of those signifiers. The elder Schwarzenegger — the replacement for former host, current executive producer, and future president Donald Trump — does not offer much to engage with except faded glory, gamely delivered famous lines, and visible discomfort with the roles of both business mogul and reality star. Even the opening credits, where he’s smoking cigars and looking rakish in expensive suits, he barely seems more than mildly enthusiastic about having money or being on-camera. He smiles with apparent genuine feeling once or twice, and that appears to only be when he doesn’t know he’s being filmed.
As is traditional for the show, the contestants were divided by gender to create the first two teams. Banks instructed each team to talk up her controversially structured TYRA Beauty line of products, and after the women’s team (Team Prima) failed to impress her, they were left in the board room for judging. (Banks’ reasoning: “I had eight famous faces that didn’t use their faces. … Each of you have this face that is worth so much money. People want to be you, people want to look like you. You’re undervaluing the value that you have.”)
Which brings us back to the judging. Schwarzenegger’s new catchphrase — top-secret, and revealed on the show — is not Trump’s “You’re fired” but instead the more brand-appropriate “You’re terminated.” (Regrettably, after the second chance he got to say that last night, he added a clunky and far-too-seriously delivered “Hasta la vista, baby.”) Both times, they were delivered to a group of women, and both times, it landed with the awkward thud of a stand-up comic who has not read the room even remotely accurately. In that first judging scene, the women sitting across from him are, at times, actually distraught. When project manager Porsha Williams struggles to explain herself — and starts babbling — the former governor of California turns to his nephew, and under his breath in German, complains about how much Williams is speaking. She is not told what is happening. In the next boardroom scene at the end of the episode, Schwarzenegger just stares at the group of talking women until they fall silent and, unprompted, apologize.
“The Apprentice,” in both its regular and “celebrity” forms, is a competition where no skill is tested except selfishly calculated teamwork. Contestants stay on the show largely depending on whether or not they manage to avoid being the product manager or stay on the product manager’s good side; indeed, it is almost too educational about how to get ahead without really trying. “Celebrity Apprentice” has the advantage of a lot of people who are already pros at hamming for the camera — Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Carson Kressley, Jon Lovitz (with his dog, Jerry Bruckheimer III), and Boy George, to name just a few.
But perhaps because none of them are really all that famous, the atmosphere is often tinged with a certain sad desperation. Right before being the first contestant eliminated, personality Carrie Keagan looks bitingly petrified; just an hour ago, she’d told the audience at home that she has a “collective 2 billion views” on YouTube (whatever that means). Olympic gold medalist and WNBA Lisa Leslie, who delivers an incredible self-defense at the end of the episode, can only register her apparent dislike for the surroundings by quietly announcing her opposition and waiting to be overruled. The mood is not fun or snarky so much as it is unpleasantly tense; the challenges are not all that interesting, and the contestants are going through the paces of reality competition as if it is a kind of bizarre summer camp they never wanted to attend in the first place. The celebrity format itself is hampering; the show is just a collection of individuals performing their brands at each other in order to advance the causes of some other brands — under the umbrella of a larger brand, which is itself… you get the idea. It feels less like a show than it does a two-hour long commercial for a lot of things that no one should ever want.
The only contestant who seems truly stoked to be there is “American Ninja Warrior” host Matt Iseman, who admits within the first few minutes that he isn’t just a fan of Schwarzenegger, he’s a “superfan.” Iseman goes onstage at the TYRA Makeup event to apply highlighter and foundation on a volunteer’s face. “I came, I saw, I contoured,” he intones proudly, before dropping into a dramatic bow.
The episode is, in some ways, intriguing in its experimentation: The men succeed at marketing the makeup because they wholeheartedly try to, learning how to blend with their fingertips and apply lipstick on someone else’s face. There’s palpable, if unspoken, tension between the gay and straight members of the team and their relative comfort with women’s beauty products. But it could also be argued that they win because of their novelty appeal; women selling the same stuff to women isn’t as interesting as a bunch of buff men learning the skills that most women do every day of their lives.
Either way, “The Celebrity Apprentice” decided to launch a new host with the same old gender breakdown, and though I guess there is something to be said for tradition, it is difficult to not be derailed by the gender implications of this episode. After all, while “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” have had six different assistants on-screen —whose only job is to hit the button when the Governor buzzes from inside the boardroom, to make the fake office seem like a real office — Schwarzenegger’s assistant Elisa is, like all the rest, a woman.