The grail is within sight as the joust finally ends

April 15, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

While Donald Trump has been called many names, King Arthur is not one of them.

But as twisted an Arthur as he might be, that's the mythic role Trump has come to play in NBC's reality series The Apprentice. And tonight, one of the 16 would-be knights of American capitalism who came on bended knee to Camelot (aka Trump Tower) back in January will win a seat at the big rectangular table in Trump's conference room.

What do the simple folk do? Twenty million of us will tune in to see one supplicant knighted and another banished from the kingdom as Trump says, "You're fired" and "You're hired."

If ever I should leave you, NBC, it wouldn't be in springtime - at least not on this Thursday night in springtime as Trump chooses between Kwame Jackson, a Wall Street investment manager, and Bill Rancic, who founded a cigar company before finding his way to Camelot. Starting with the racial difference between Jackson and Rancic, there is so much more than mere entertainment involved in what will be happening tonight on NBC.

With its No. 1 ranking in viewers 18 to 49 last week and ceaseless media buzz for the last six, The Apprentice has become one of those elite reality TV shows that is bigger than television. The list includes Survivor, American Idol, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The Bachelor and, maybe, The Simple Life. Like the great dramas on HBO - The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire - these hit reality series are each about something more than they might appear to be.

Just as The Sopranos is as much or more about family, capitalism and middle-aged masculinity as it is organized crime, so is American Idol a test of the bedrock democratic notion that we live in a society where talent matters more than pedigree. Even The Simple Life is more about social class and status - offering middle-class viewers the chance to feel superior to both lower- and upper-class onscreen characters - than the snooty-tramp-vamp ways of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie lost in Hooterville.

Last week, Mark Burnett, co-executive producer of The Apprentice, said he believes Trump's performance in the boardroom taps into the kind of deep cultural roots described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study of the way in which legends and fables of all cultures share a singular narrative of heroes and quests.

In this case, it's the Arthurian legends. Just like the knights who gathered around Arthur's Round Table, the 16 contestants in The Apprentice have been sent out each week on miniquests, tasks assigned by Trump that forced them to engage in battle.

And, always, it was back to the boardroom where Trump sat flanked by his council of elders, senior advisers George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher. Last week, the two Trump aides were joined by four more who further vetted the two finalists to help their boss decide who would ultimately be seated alongside them tonight.

But, if the Arthurian legends embodied the highest values of England in the late Middle Ages (chivalry, honor, duty and social order wrought from chaos), what does The Apprentice say about American life today? What are its values, and what does our attraction to those values say about us?

Burnett and Trump say the series is about teamwork, but only one person will win the $250,000 prize of heading up one of Trump's companies.

The values most consistently celebrated in The Apprentice are completing assigned tasks on time, pleasing the boss, making money and winning. They are the core values of corporate life in America today. The Apprentice is a TV game version of our very own workplace lives - only we can sit back, relax and learn from the mistakes and victories of the on-screen characters instead of having to travel ourselves at the end of the day to the big boardroom upstairs and be judged.

Burnett captured some of that same workplace angst in Survivor, but this time in addition to enriching the mix through the mythic stature of Trump, he has also stirred in a red-hot helping of gender and race. All of which adds up to a potent symbolic rendering of life in multicultural America today.

Jackson and Rancic will be judged tonight on how they and their teams complete tasks given to them last week by Trump. Jackson's team has to stage a Jessica Simpson concert, while Rancic's group is running a celebrity golf tournament at a Trump country club.

With one finalist black and the other white, race was already in the mix. But last week, one of the six people brought back to work with the two finalists was Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, an African-American contestant who leveled charges of racism after she was fired by Trump. Jackson picked her to be on his team, and near the end of last week's episode, she was caught in a flagrant lie that just might cost him the coveted apprenticeship.

Manigault-Stallworth is the Richard Hatch of The Apprentice. But unlike Hatch in the first Survivor, this person who is set up by the producers as an object of contempt is not going to win. She is there to stir the cauldron of race and to prick at attitudes viewers might have toward such issues as affirmative action in the workplace.

In that sense, for all the ratings glory it will reap tonight, NBC should be ashamed. It didn't have to bring her back. With her return, The Apprentice goes from exploring race to exploiting it.

That is the kind of value also celebrated in this modern-day Arthurian legend: Do whatever it takes to get the biggest audience and make the most money, social responsibility be darned. Life today in what passes for Camelot.

NBC's "The Apprentice" airs 9-11 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

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