New Apprentice boss lacks bite and menace

The new catchphrase from Arnold Schwarzenegger (far left) that replaces “You’re fired” is “You’re terminated”.
The new catchphrase from Arnold Schwarzenegger (far left) that replaces “You’re fired” is “You’re terminated”. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Arnold Schwarzenegger is rigid and robotic in the premiere of The New Celebrity Apprentice

NEW YORK • What was new about The New Celebrity Apprentice, which premiered on Monday on NBC with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new host?

"You're fired" became "You're terminated", a catchphrase within a catchphrase - referring to the actor's career-making film The Terminator (1984) - that sounded clever for about two seconds.

The setting moved from New York to Los Angeles, with a correspondingly sunny new opening sequence (still set to the O'Jays' For The Love Of Money).

And there was the new host, who replaces Mr Donald Trump who is moving over to the Oval office, though if you had not watched the 14 previous seasons of Celebrity Apprentice and the show from which it was spun off, The Apprentice, you might not have noticed.

Mr Trump's name was not mentioned, appearing only during the closing credits and the dreary two-hour episode sorely missed him.

The closest the show came to acknowledging him was when Schwarzenegger said: "I'm the new boss. And I intend to be tough but fair."

The Apprentice franchise has never been great television, but Mr Trump gave it a reason for being. After Monday's numbingly boring opener, someone needs to take the New Celebrity Apprentice into the boardroom, quick.

Was that "fair" a dig at Mr Trump, the businessman turned reality-TV star-turned-polarising President- elect, whose Apprentice tenure made him an international celebrity?

NBC was in a bind, having claimed to sever ties with Mr Trump after his first big campaign controversy, but still cutting him cheques as an executive producer of the revamped show.

You can guess at the thinking in the boardroom. (The actual one at NBC, not the elaborate set where Schwarzenegger now terminates losing contestants). The network needs to distance itself from Mr Trump to protect its credibility and the show's ratings had been poor to middling for a broadcast-network reality series. But if the show appears to be running away from him, it might antagonise some of his constituency, not to mention displeasing a thin-skinned chief executive with influence at the Federal Communications Commission. So he was a ghostly presence.

Executive producers nearly always get their names onscreen at the top of a show, but on Monday, the only opening credit was "Created by Mark Burnett", giving pride of place to the reality-TV pioneer who made the inspired choice of Mr Trump as host back in 2004.

And that pointed up the truth that The Apprentice never really was Mr Trump's show. He was the face of the franchise and participated in the profits, but he was Burnett's hired gun.

The sheer pleasure Mr Trump had taken in saying "you're fired", in playing the part of the demonic boss, gave the show a comic dimension that distinguished it from other, more earnest reality competitions.

With Schwarzenegger, there is no joy, just a - pardon the word - robotic professionalism. His rebukes do not have enough bite, his stares not enough menace. His one noticeable zinger, "You guys are ducking more questions than Congress", sounded scripted.

The show around him, with its cast of backbiting reality retreads and its blatant logrolling - the first challenge involved a beauty line put out by Tyra Banks, one of Schwarzenegger's "advisers" - was pretty much the same as always. There was even a surprisingly direct nod to the Trump years with the presence of Schwarzenegger's nephew Patrick Schwarzenegger as the other adviser.

But it was hollow at the centre - the onus was on the contestants to make up, in their reaction shots, for Schwarzenegger's tepid delivery. (comedian Jon Lovitz and fashion designer Carson Kressley were best at it and it would not be a surprise if they both survive deep into the season.)

Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, makes sense in the abstract as a replacement host, bridging the celebrity-turned-politician gap from Mr Ronald Reagan to Mr Trump. But he is too obviously a performer (and a limited one), trying to fill out an action-hero persona that is now bigger than he is.

Mr Trump, by contrast, seems to exist as pure personality - so far it has proved difficult to judge the distance between him and his persona. As he entered the larger and more heavily scrutinised arena of a presidential campaign - with actual stakes, rather than the Apprentice prizes of a contribution to charity or a job on a Trump Organization project - that persona became more one-dimensional.

The bullying remained, but the joy faded, and the comedy was often reduced to nasty zingers and schoolyard-quality taunts.

Watching The New Celebrity Appearance, it was clear that Mr Trump's imperiousness and (seeming) impetuousness had made him an ideal reality-TV boss, while Schwarzenegger's cautiousness and rigidity make him a poor fit.

The Apprentice franchise has never been great television, but Mr Trump gave it a reason for being. After Monday's numbingly boring opener, someone needs to take the New Celebrity Apprentice into the boardroom, quick.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'New Apprentice boss lacks bite and menace'. Print Edition | Subscribe