With Schwarzenegger as host, Celebrity Apprentice lacks old bite

Host Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) and Tyra Banks participate in a panel for The New Celebrity Apprentice in Universal City, California on Dec 9, 2016.
Host Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) and Tyra Banks participate in a panel for The New Celebrity Apprentice in Universal City, California on Dec 9, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - What was new about The New Celebrity Apprentice?

"You're fired" became "You're terminated," a catchphrase within a catchphrase - referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger's career-making 1984 film, Terminator - 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 a new host, though if you hadn't watched the 14 previous seasons of Celebrity Apprentice and the show from which it was spun off, The Apprentice, you might not have noticed.

Donald Trump's name wasn't mentioned in Monday's (Jan 2) season premiere on NBC, appearing only during the closing credits, and the dreary two-hour episode sorely missed him.

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

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

NBC was in a bind, having claimed to sever ties with Trump after his first big campaign controversy (when he said of Mexican immigrants, "They're rapists") 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 Trump to protect its credibility, and after a strong start, the franchise'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 Trump as host back in 2004.

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

The series may have taken on, or shaped itself around, Trump's persona, but it was Burnett who did the shaping. Trump's performance was part of the raw material - an essential part, but a part nonetheless - that Burnett and his team of editors turned into television.

At a 2010 panel for The Apprentice in New York, an audience member asked, "Who is the boss?"

Burnett, a consummate, professional businessman - which is to say, not someone you'd want as the host of your reality show - asked, "Do you think Donald's going to listen to me?" and carefully explained that "everything during the shooting and decision making is Donald." ("Decision making" referring to the firings in the boardroom scenes.) He didn't bother going on to say that everything before and after the shooting was Mark.

But he did say, with an odd touch of defensiveness, "Donald's executive producer and the star of the show, and we all try and be supportive of that."

At that point, Trump, otherwise expansive and genial, sat with narrowed eyes and pursed lips, like a schoolboy who'd just been lectured. It showed a kind of emotional honesty that was crucial to Trump's onscreen success.

His boardroom-bully act - the scolding, the put-downs, the interruptions - wouldn't have been as palatable if he hadn't been so obviously enjoying it. The sheer pleasure he took 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's no joy, just a - you'll pardon the word - robotic professionalism. His rebukes don't have enough bite, his stares don't have 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 (which featured his older children as advisers) with the presence of Schwarzenegger's nephew Patrick Schwarzenegger as the other adviser.

But it was hollow at the center - the onus was on the contestants to make up, in their reaction shots, for Schwarzenegger's tepid delivery. (Jon Lovitz and Carson Kressley were best at it, and it won't 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 Ronald Reagan to Trump. But he's too obviously a performer (and a limited one), trying to fill out an action-hero persona that's now bigger than he is.

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 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. (Though perhaps they came in handy in the governor's office.)

The Apprentice franchise has never been great television, but 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.