`Apprentice' puts Trump in positive spotlight

Viewers want to see boss fire workers

April 08, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

His bizarre, boxy hairdo is mocked on late-night talk shows. College students parody the overkill of his god-like weekly ritual of pointing his finger at a young person and thundering, "You're fired." Cultural critics says he's become a symbol of the "dorky uber-boss," while taking up residency in a realm of dubious-celebrity that includes Gary Coleman, Richard Hatch and Corey Feldman.

And, yet, Donald Trump says his starring role in reality TV's latest phenomenon, NBC's The Apprentice, has been nothing short of great for his image. He does certainly seem to be everywhere in the American media these days - from cell phone ads, to NBC's Saturday Night Live and the network's vaunted Thursday night, prime-time lineup.

"So many people have come up to me since the show has been on, and they say, `Donald, your image is so much nicer now. It's unbelievable how wonderful and how nice a person you are,'" Trump said with his usual sense of modesty during a telephone press conference yesterday.

"And I'm saying to myself: `Can you believe it? All I do is fire people every week, and people now think I'm a nice person? Can you believe how bad my image must have been before this?'"

Trump and his producing partner, Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame), were on the phone yesterday for NBC trying to pump the already Top 10 Nielsen ratings for The Apprentice even higher. While Trump described the series as the "No. 1 show" on television last week during an appearance as guest host on Saturday Night Live, its' best finish was fifth overall in viewers.

But The Apprentice could yet become No. 1 - if not with tonight's penultimate episode, then with next week's two-hour, live finale during which Trump will pick one of two remaining contestants as his apprentice, a job that pays $250,000 a year. And, while Trump and Burnett were mainly concerned yesterday with making that happen, underneath all the ego there were glimpses of what has made The Donald and his series run so hot with American viewers.

Both he and Burnett believe the secret of the show's success is connected to Trump's image, particularly as it is revealed in the scene each week played out in his boardroom - the cruel moment of eliminating a contestant with the words, "You're fired."

"The expression is very tough," Trump said yesterday. "You know, there are no scripts, and we don't do doubletakes or anything. So, we went into that boardroom the first time, and the words just came out of my mouth - somewhat by accident. And I admit they are very harsh. But they are also very definitive words, and, in a certain sense, they are very beautiful words."


"Yes, beautiful, because there's no [misunderstanding]," Trump said. "I mean, very few people can respond to that, and it's like: It's over. It was obviously something that hit a nerve. I mean, I do use those words in the real world. ... That is real life."

Burnett, the king of reality TV producers since the debut of Survivor on CBS in 2000, says he was concerned that the expression might make Trump seem too harsh, but decided that using softer language would be "disingenuous."

"Look, there's way too much political correctness. And, if you're telling someone it hasn't worked out, you are telling them they're fired. It just makes more sense to say that," Burnett said.

He believes Trump's persona within that boardroom scenario taps into the kind of deep cultural roots described by scholar Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces - a study of how the myths and fables of virtually all cultures share a unifying narrative of heroism and community.

"From my point of view, the reason for the success of the show is social psychology," Burnett said. "We really relate to it, because there's a lot of Joseph Campbell in the show - in that it's ritualistic, and it speaks to a sense that everybody has of wanting to be included, wanting to be part of the tribe."

Burnett, who has exploited the use of ritual and explored the impulse toward tribalism extensively in Survivor, says he is mining the same territory in The Apprentice with Trump in the boardroom.

"No one in life wants to be excluded, and what we were going for here is a cast with everyone desperately wanting to work for Donald Trump. The primary thing in casting this show was not whether someone was good-looking or smart. It was did they desperately want to work for Trump," Burnett said.

"Donald is such an icon. He's the American Dream. He's one of the gods of American business in the modern day. And they just want the chance to touch that. In the Joseph Campbell, ritualistic sense, it's very iconic to want to belong to that and not be excluded. ... And we sense that horror in the boardroom."

Whew. A god, the American Dream. Not even Trump has gone that far - at least not publicly.

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