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The Apprentice

Mark Burnett has managed to keep the "Survivor" franchise clicking along on all cylinders where others have faded, so betting against him might appear ill advised. Still, his notion of adapting that cutthroat competition to the asphalt jungle stumbles over a formidable obstacle -- namely, fellow exec producer Donald Trump and his oversized ego.

Mark Burnett has managed to keep the “Survivor” franchise clicking along on all cylinders where others have faded, so betting against him might appear ill advised. Still, his notion of adapting that cutthroat competition to the asphalt jungle stumbles over a formidable obstacle — namely, fellow exec producer Donald Trump and his oversized ego. Who will survive this “13-week job interview” to see who lands a major corporate position working for the Donald? Perhaps the better question is: Will viewers want to endure spending that much time with a guy who somehow manages to swagger while sitting in an armchair?

Since borrowing from yourself is a Hollywood art form, Burnett can be forgiven for the show’s conceptual similarities to “Survivor,” though some of the dialogue pounds that idea into the ground. More than once, Trump observes that “New York City is the real jungle,” promising contestants it’s “either the suite or the street.”

Clearly, Burnett is an exceptionally slick producer, and even if the winner is destined to walk away in a business suit, the casting ensures most of them would still look pretty good in a loincloth or sarong.

That said, some of the flourishes that work on “Survivor” feel over-produced here, in which the super-sized debut features competing teams selling lemonade — set to the sort of urgent music normally found in a “Lethal Weapon” film. It’s also questionable how much allure boardroom shenanigans hold for a broad cross section of the audience, inasmuch as CNBC hasn’t yet seen fit to start having Kudlow & Cramer arm wrestle to see who talks first.

Most of the contestants have already enjoyed some entrepreneurial success, though few distinct personalities emerge during the premiere. The teams are divided according to gender, though the novelty of seeing women compete with men in a business setting certainly isn’t what it was before Martha Stewart proved that the gals can pile up cash and get indicted just like the guys.

The overriding problem, however, is simply too much Trump. Granted, there aren’t that many corporate tycoons with this level of recognition, but the other half of a “Q” score is popularity, and last time I checked, most people think the guy’s kind of a jerk.

Moreover, the entire project at times feels like product-placement for Trump’s various assets. Contestants stay at the Trump Towers and speak of him in hushed, reverent tones, fretting about what to name their teams in order to impress him. (Since he names all his units “Trump something-or-other,” exactly how difficult could it be?)

Though the contestants take center stage, viewers are also treated to periodic visits with the Man Himself in the boardroom, in his helicopter and in his plush apartment with his vacuous-looking girlfriend. The amount of face-time stretches the flip side of that Q-rating.

Show him getting hit with a pie in the face and you might have something. Soupy Sales lives in Manhattan. As stunt casting goes, it’s a thought.

After Thursday’s post-“Friends” launch, “The Apprentice” shifts to Wednesdays, in an hour where “Ed” hasn’t set the bar especially high for Nielsen earnings. NBC could certainly use a jumpstart leading into “The West Wing,” and the network is doubtless hoping that upscale audience will be interested in a show about the road to upscaleness.

Maybe, but I have my doubts. In a letter to TV writers, Burnett bills Trump as his “best-ever” casting decision, calling him a “captivating television personality … (who) has become a dear friend.”

Nice as it is to see two rich guys forge that type of bond, all this recent exposure to city air appears to have clouded Burnett’s vision. Because as much as we aspire to that corner office and killer salary, if spending this much time with Trump is the price for finding “The Apprentice,” for most viewers the job might fall into the life’s-too-short category.

Popular on Variety

The Apprentice

NBC, Thurs. Jan. 8, 8:30 P.M.

Production: Filmed in New York by Mark Burnett Prods. Executive producers, Mark Burnett, Donald Trump; co-executive producers, Conrad Riggs, Jay Bienstock; supervising producer, Kevin Harris; producers, Jamie Bruce, James Canniffe, Seth Cohen, Bill Pruitt, Katherine Walker.

Crew: Camera, Scott Duncan, Matt Sohn; editor, Jon Braun; music, Jeff Lippencott, David Vanacore, Mark T. Williams; casting, Rob LaPlante.

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