Before her notoriety as one of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York City,” Bethenny Frankel emerged from a very different style of reality TV. In 2005, she competed on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” a show designed to burnish Stewart’s image just after her release from federal prison, and, after having done that, to choose for Stewart a successor figure. Frankel came in second place on the series. But in the years since, she’s pioneered a sort of celebrity that looks, on the surface, a bit like Stewart’s. Like Stewart, Frankel unifies a plainspoken and somewhat acidic sensibility with an attainable consumer brand. Some 16 years after hoping Stewart would choose her, it’s Frankel, on the new HBO Max series “The Big Shot with Bethenny,” who’s doing the choosing.
This show, Frankel tells us, is an attempt to find “a vice president of operations — but come in here and get the f—ing s— done, and I’ll call you anything you want!” The shapelessness of the job title on offer, and of the series, might seem at first like an opportunity to allow a driven person to make of a massive opportunity what they could. Instead, it provides Frankel the chance to toy with the competitors for her affection. Like Jenna Lyons’ “Stylish,” also on HBO Max, this series is seemingly purposefully unclear about what it’s asking of its participants, so as to amp up an artificial drama that stems from confusion rather than what it might have been — the excitement of talented people being asked to do their best work. Like Lyons, Frankel seems unafraid to present herself as presiding over an empire in a state of disarray; at the beginning of the first episode, Frankel produces a confusing flow chart she made to describe her business, culminating in the revelation that her dogs are “talent.” But Lyons, an airy and aloof presence, sought to make even elimination into a learning and potentially healing experience for herself, if not her acolytes. Frankel has made such a career of refusing to suffer fools that, with everyone in her line of sight playing the role of her enemy, it can seem as if she’s suffering all the time.
Choosing from among people who are obviously less experienced and less camera-ready than is Frankel places the host, once again, in a challenging position. Bethenny’s previous attempt to engage with the public, on a daytime talk show, flatlined and is best remembered now for a vituperative argument. Before that, though, her rise took place among peers: As one of the Housewives, she emerged from what was, at least at first, a level playing field, becoming more recognizable and more beloved with jokes that made up for what they lacked in classic wit with vitriol. And as a figure establishing herself in the world of business, Frankel has looked like a David among Goliaths, bootstrapping a loose concept — the word “Skinnygirl” — into a company whose success has made her look more credibly like a Stewart in the making than “The Apprentice” ever might have. Picking from, and picking on, a group of people who urgently want Bethenny-style success for themselves brings out a certain joyfulness in Frankel’s willingness to attack that shows why she’s so adept in business, and why she is not a TV personality built to withstand just any format.
To wit: The first episode hinges on a cocktail party for the series’ contestants, one attended by members of Frankel’s team, concealing their identities, and observed, secretly, by Frankel herself. (This gives rise to many sequences of Frankel peering out of the corners of windows — the GIFs to be made of these eerie shots are the show’s likeliest legacy.) At the conclusion of the event, Frankel boots several attendees seemingly at random, keeping some who seemed to have made obvious faux pas and evicting others who didn’t meet capricious demands. One unfortunate competitor attempts to explain to Frankel what she does for a living, and gets repeatedly cut off mid-sentence and even mid-word by Frankel asking “How?” She is eventually booted by Frankel, who tells her “Right now, in this moment, it’s super-important that I make the best choices.”
“Life is business and business is life,” Frankel intones before the first eliminations. “You will learn so many things about your life through business, you will learn so many things about your business through your life.” Television cameras may make this less true. In the early days of her “Housewives” career, Frankel was a relatable, root-able figure for the ways in which — emerging from the global financial crisis as well as a long struggle to be recognized for her talents — she put ambition to work for her.
Having seemingly learned in business that a big persona carries the day, Frankel makes each elimination into an event. In one early episode, Frankel walks out of the room in order to call her 10-year-old daughter and ask for advice as to which competitor she should kick out. Frankel often discredits or outright derides contestants to the camera, as if she and we are all in on a joke together. One strange early episode sees Frankel refusing to engage with one potential hire who’s made a mistake, waiting until she’s only footsteps away to roast her for the error. Later, a challenge asking the group to write recipes prompts Bethenny to mirthlessly mock one bilingual woman’s English, exclaiming “This is a crisis” and “Were you drunk?” “I guess my grammar and my very chatty nature,” this unfortunate individual tells the camera, downcast, “seems very… comical?” She’s right to be confused as to why a potential employer would act so cruelly. But by this point in the series, and in Frankel’s onscreen evolution, the audience will be used to it.
This strangely conceived series is rooted in the idea that the protagonist of a show full of ambitious people seeking a chance should be the rich person who mocks them. It suggests Frankel’s ability to ride the waves of a changing culture has waned, or that her luck has finally run out. No one can stay scrappy forever, and the way Frankel runs things off-camera clearly works for her, but — especially in the present cultural moment — “surprisingly demanding boss” is a label that’s hard to wear while keeping the audience on your side.
Many reality hosts try to stay above the fray. On this series, Frankel is the fray, a set of circumstances that those under her must first learn how to manage. Failing to do that won’t just get you booted; it’ll get the ire of reality television’s current reigning insult comic trained your way. That Frankel’s barbs end up injuring the one wielding the weapon and not the target — that her relentlessness as regards someone who she could just let go comes quickly to seem single-minded — may be lost on her. It’s as though she’s competing with the people whose fates she controls, if not for a job, then for our attention.
It’s unclear what Frankel thought a show about her being a harsh potential employer who hectors her recruits would do for her personal brand. But as a portrait of what the ruthlessly competitive market for business success and for our eyeballs does to one’s sense of generosity and of proportion, “The Big Shot with Bethenny” is riveting television. If business and life go hand in hand, this series serves as an object lesson for the viewer how much richer their life is that they are not a boss, and that they do not have this boss. I walked away from six episodes feeling bad for everyone involved. And I can’t believe how quickly I’ll watch the next one.
“The Big Shot with Bethenny” premieres on HBO Max April 29.