Relaxed, unfettered Martha hits airways


September 18, 2005|By Beth Gillin | Beth Gillin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Who is this warm and funny woman tossing off risque references to lacy lingerie one minute and soliciting prayers for hurricane victims the next?

And what has she done with cool-as-a-cucumber control freak Martha Stewart?

In case anyone was wondering whether Stewart would refer to her troubles with the law on her new syndicated lifestyle show, Martha, which made its debut last, the star stepped onstage to thunderous applause and announced: "I am unfettered. I am free. No ankle bracelets."

Then she made a joke about the electronic tracking device she'd been obliged to wear while serving house arrest after prison time for lying to federal agents about a stock transaction. It worked so well on her, she said, that she'd ordered a bunch of them for staff members, producers and her dog.

A few minutes later she solicited prayers "for the future of this great, great country." (Note to federal government: All is forgiven.)

The hourlong Martha has been snapped up by stations across the country. And it's just phase one of the rehabilitation.

On Wednesday, Stewart begins her foray into prime time with The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. On that reality program, the emphasis will be on her managerial skills.

But on Martha, the accent is on learning, and the host's attitude is upbeat bordering on devil-may-care.

Whether demonstrating an origami-style trick for folding a T-shirt or teaching actress Marcia Cross to scramble an egg, Stewart seemed relaxed.

Gone was the constricted diction of the domestic dominatrix of yore. Had the born perfectionist decided to loosen up and have a little fun? Or was she taking instruction from executive producer Mark Burnett, the man behind Martha?

Burnett uses humor to humanize Stewart. The first guest, for example, was actress Cross, whose character Bree Van Der Kamp in Desperate Housewives is a send-up of Stewart.

"Do you really think your character is based on me?" Stewart asked. "That's how they described it," replied Cross, who, as it turns out, is a terrible cook.

Other first-week guests included Sean "Diddy" Combs, who tried to teach Stewart to rap.

While the show is lighthearted, there's no attempt to knock Stewart off her pedestal as an expert on the household arts. Fans like looking up to her.

So Burnett - who runs Survivor, The Apprentice and other reality hits, including Stewart's Apprentice spinoff - has cast her as a kindly, gracious, older-but-wiser monarch.

In segment after segment, Stewart soothed the awestruck and the nervous, once with an offer to help weed a garden.

After paying a surprise visit to a New Jersey family that shared its recipe for meatballs, Stewart sat down for a card game with the menfolk. She'd never heard of the game. This surprised her because, she said, "I got Hoyle's Book of Card Games and read it in prison."

Martha TV

What: The Apprentice: Martha Stewart

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: WBAL, Channel 11

In brief: The once-imprisoned domestic diva tried to trump Trump.

What: Martha

When: Monday-Friday, 4 p.m.

Where: WMAR, Channel 2

In brief: Kinder, gentler hostess Stewart is able to poke fun - even at herself.

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