`Apprentice' manages mythic, cheesy finale

April 16, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

And so it came to pass that the final two were sent out into the Kingdom of Trump to undergo tests to determine which was worthy of a seat in the great conference room in the castle of the king of American commerce.

That was the symbolic story of last night's finale of the season's red-hot reality TV phenomenon, The Apprentice, as Kwame Jackson, a Harvard M.B.A., and Bill Rancic, founder of a cigar company, went head-to-head to win a $250,000-a-year job working for Donald Trump. They were the last of 16 contestants who came to the steel-and-glass Manhattan castle known as Trump Tower back in January - a journey watched by as many as 20 million viewers a week.

Trump chose Rancic as his apprentice 92 minutes into a two-hour show that went from mythic to infomercial and then a little bit of Jerry Springer before it was over. It was interrupted for commercial messages more often than the Super Bowl, with clusters of as many as 10 ads or promotional messages at a time running every 10 minutes.

The mythic part involved Jackson being sent with a team of three contestants whom Trump had previously fired to stage a Jessica Simpson concert at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, while Rancic and a team of three ran a charity golf tournament at one of Trump's country clubs. They were knights of American commerce sent out to be tested in battle.

Meanwhile, King Trump and two trusted members of his court - senior counsel George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher, chief operating officer of Trump's country clubs - were waiting back in his boardroom to judge them. And outside of the obscene commercial clutter, all of that was fine - or at least consistent with what made the show such a success with viewers. As exploitative as creator Mark Burnett can be, one has to acknowledge the brilliant way The Apprentice tapped into some of the deepest-held American beliefs about business and competition.

But once Trump made the choice of Rancic, The Apprentice deconstructed before our eyes into pure cheese.

The panels of the boardroom that Burnett had made a place of judgment and seat of power were pulled away to reveal a live studio audience on hand at NBC's Rockefeller Center. With that, Trump took center stage and, like a daytime game show host, launched into some of the most unabashed self-promotion prime-time television has ever seen.

He was ostensibly giving Rancic three minutes to choose one of two jobs as his prize: managing a new Trump Tower in Chicago or a new Trump country club on the Pacific. But the language Trump used - ""a spectacular building project that will result in one of the world's greatest towers setting new standards of architectural excellence" - was the lexicon of the infomercial. The promotional pictures NBC let him air were an infomercial.

Rancic chose the Chicago job because he's from Chicago. But Trump, the carnival barker, was only warming up. He thanked Chrysler for sponsoring the show, handed Rancic the keys to one of its cars, and then went into a promotion for the second season of The Apprentice.

But the worst transformation of the production was yet to come, as the 14 contestants who had been fired by Trump were brought onstage seated across from Trump. This was Trump performing with the group as Jerry Springer does with his guests - particularly when he asked former contestant Ereka Ventrini what she thought of Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who was seated next to her.

Manigault-Stallworth, who is African-American, had alleged after Trump fired her that Ventrini had used a racial epithet in speaking about her. Vetrini, Burnett and Trump all denied it. On last night's show, the cameras caught Manigault-Stallworth in a lie.

"She's a liar, and I've known that a long time," Vetrini.

Maybe Manigault-Stallworth deserved to be The Apprentice's Richard Hatch - the person in Burnett's first Survivor whom viewers were given license to hate. But this exchange led by Trump with the two women seated side by side seemed like pure exploitation of race to stir conflict.

As bizarre a production as it was, the two hours had a weird unity, ending back on the mythic with Trump on his throne behind the great table, waving his right hand majestically back and forth to the NBC studio crowd like a king or a pope - a sign that all was right in the Kingdom of Trump and we could go all go to bed and sleep warm.

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