TV Review: ‘The New Celebrity Apprentice’ With Arnold Schwarzenegger

New Celebrity Apprentice
Courtesy of NBC

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.

TV Review: ‘The New Celebrity Apprentice’ With Arnold Schwarzenegger

Reality, 7 episodes (1 reviewed): NBC, Mon. Jan. 2, 8 p.m.

Crew

Executive producers, Mark Burnett, Donald J. Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Page Feldman, Eric Van Wagenan

Cast

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Laila Ali, Brook Burke-Charvet, Eric Dickerson, Boy George, Matt Iseman, Carrie Keagan, Carson Kressley, Lisa Leslie, Jon Lovitz, Vince Neil, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, Kyle Richards, Chael Sonnen, Porsha Williams, Ricky Williams, Carnie Wilson

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  1. Valerie Woodard says:

    I was once a big fan. What killed it for me was his last terminator movie. Actors like Charles Bronson and Sean Connery played strong, sexy parts regardless of their age. He neutered himself with that awful, wimpy, gramps part. Not sexy, not strong, not a hero anymore. Gramps was a girly man. Why on earth did his manager and agent let him take that part? It destroyed his brand. He should get a new team.

  2. Shawn Beck says:

    just watched an hour of this show for the first time ever, i won’t be watching it again, it sucks. the only way this will stay on the air is if arnold spendss his own money to keep it running this can not possibly make a profit. i would rather watch a barney and pee wee herman marathon than this crap.

  3. Jesse says:

    I miss Donald Trump on the show! I love the show but I did not realize, until I saw Arnold, how important Trump was to the production. There is just something about Arnold that does not work with this show. They should try updating this new version of the show, now that Trump is no longer there, and have a strong woman at the helm firing contestants. Judge Jeanine or Judge Judy would make the contestants wet their pants in fear! Lol!

  4. It has always been a bad show for women, especially when Trump was at the helm. Most of the women were only famous because of their beauty and therefore, don’t win. There were only a couple of smart women each year. The men, on the other hand, actually have talents to win the competition.

  5. Joe says:

    This is the same idiot that tried to turn Silicon Valley into a sexist show and then, in her write up, wrote about Kumail Nanjani and Kunal Nayyar as the same person. Talk about a hypocrite.

  6. Billy Barnes says:

    #1. I never heard f most of these “celebrities. #2. Someone from another reality show is NOT a “celebrity. #3. After about 10 minutes, the show was so horrible, I fast-forwarded to the boardroom segments and they were so horrible, I fast-forwarded to them and didn’t care who was fired. #4. Never to be viewed again.

  7. Lois Eisenberg says:

    ‘”The New Celebrity Apprentice’ With Arnold Schwarzenegger”

    HOW NAUSEATING!!!!!!

  8. Lanatik says:

    This is sadder than sad. Overly made up, tatted up or garbed up desperate people doing desperate meaningless things. AS and his sidekick are stranger than strange, juvenile at best. What on earth did Maria find in this Cretan and how did we ever elect him governor? I guess he paved the way for Donald Frump a mental case is there ever has been. Life is stranger than strange.

  9. Johnny says:

    Wow.. what a ridiculous spin you try to put on this. Your comment about him staring at the women for no reason until they became silent and apologized unprompted was completely misguided… they continued to talk among themselves when he started addressing the men, so he acknowledged their rude interruption until they stopped. You clearly have an agenda here that nobody should be buying. And side note: it’s “Project Manager” not “Product Manager.”

  10. Jan Stephonson says:

    You brought your own lens to the show. Did it suck? Completely. Was this an attack on us as women? No…it was the Apprentice as it’s been for years. And Tyra didn’t disappear for me. THAT is your issue…one that clearly requires lots and lots of therapy.

  11. Larry Moore says:

    NBC should invite Hillary Clinton to do an episode on the show. It would be a ratings smash hit.

  12. Avid Political Observer says:

    The contestants knew what happens on those shows…quit trying to turn the on-camera behavior of the show’s host into a men vs. women talking point. It already cost you an election…why don’t you cut your losses. Not everything is about isms…in fact, most things aren’t.

  13. Reader says:

    Didn’t watch the old incarnation and sure as heck ain’t gonna watch this new version. NBC – Nuthin’ But Crap.

  14. Dunstan says:

    The very end of “entertainment” as we know it.

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