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'Apprentice' glorifies greed

Reality TV works well when it tells a deeper story than merely that of a contest. It works even better when the tale rubs up against viewers' core values and beliefs.

The wildly popular American Idol, which made instant stars out of Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, simultaneously celebrates and quashes the democratic notion that talent will be rewarded. The Simple Life, which last month became the hottest new series on network television, validates and tweaks our ideas about social status by allowing middle-class viewers to feel superior to members of upper and lower classes.

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Now NBC's The Apprentice glorifies and exposes unbridled, bare-knuckled, robber-baron, winner-take-all, loser-be-damned capitalism. Real estate mogul Donald Trump stars in the show, (premiering tonight), as a would-be employer judging 16 contestants as they vie for a job by performing high-stress, financially risky tasks. The winner gets a $250,000-a-year position as the head of a Trump company.

With the players divided into two teams (men vs. women) and one participant getting "fired" every week, the show is fast-paced, raw-edged, silly, savage and ugly. Just what one might expect from producer Mark Burnett who in 2000 gave us Survivor, the mega-hit that launched a million reality TV derivations and briefly made back-stabbing liar-boy Richard Hatch a household name.

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Manhattan is the stage and Trump is in the spotlight. Which of the lean and hungry supplicants who come to kiss this great and mighty man's ring will be granted permanent residence in the magical kingdom of Trump Towers? This is the fairy tale narrative that drives The Apprentice. Debased or not, it has a certain mythic energy.

Skilled TV storyteller that he is, Burnett wastes no time laying out the landscape in which this fable will unfold. As his cameras focus on a view of Manhattan dominated by glass skyscrapers golden with the promise of early morning, Trump says in voiceover, "New York, my city, where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning. A concrete metropolis of unparalleled strength and purpose that drives the business world."

Trump's over-the-top monologue is accompanied by a dazzling montage of Wall Street images and punctuated by the clang, clang, clang of the New York Stock Exchange bell. "Manhattan is a tough place; this island is the real jungle," Trump says, repeating a theme sounded again and again in an attempt to link The Apprentice to Survivor. "If you're not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out. But, if you work hard, you can hit it big, and I mean really big."

As he says "spit you out," an image of what appears to be a homeless man sleeping on a park bench fills the screen. When he says, "hit it big," quick cuts take viewers from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the Statue of Liberty, and then to Trump serenely gliding through Manhattan in a gleaming limousine.

The images appear and disappear so quickly that few viewers are likely to think deeply about their meanings. But the crafty juxtapositions of word and picture create subliminal messages: The man on the park bench is homeless because he wasn't careful. Trump is in the limousine because he worked hard. If viewers buy this mindset, they also receive dispensation to feel contempt for losers. As for Trump, he epitomizes what Lady Liberty stands for.

The tycoon's egotism (not to mention his bizarre, boxy hairstyle) is almost too much to bear. And talk about product placement: At times, The Apprentice seems like one long Trump commercial.

"I've mastered the art of the deal; I've turned the name Trump into the highest quality brand," he says. "As a master of the deal, I want to pass my knowledge on to someone else. I'm searching for an apprentice." Just like Merlin and King Arthur, isn't it?

The 16 contestants who now appear onscreen are wide-eyed with wonder as they meekly enter Trump Towers and wait to be summoned by the mighty man himself. (The group will live together in a suite at the towers.) Trump describes them as "the smartest people ... from all over the world." He backs that up by saying, "some have their Ph.D's."

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In fact, none has a Ph.D. One would-be apprentice, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, 29, is more accurately described by NBC as "working toward her Ph.D" at Howard University. Working toward a Ph.D - or a Mercedes (to use the values celebrated in the show) - is not the same as having one, is it, Mr. Trump?

Furthermore, for all Trump's talk about his potential proteges' intelligence, what viewers see of the women are mostly skin shots of ankles, legs and midriffs. Not that the contestants necessarily deserve better.

The first challenge involves Trump giving $250 in "seed" money to both teams and sending them into the Manhattan streets to sell lemonade. Both groups make a junk product - cheap frozen concentrate mixed with water in plastic pails - then try various gimmicks to hype sales. The women shed pieces of clothing and offer kisses to male customers - and it works. Trump rewards them with a tour of his glitzy penthouse conducted by his even glitzier girlfriend, Melania Knauss.

The shoddiness of the product is indicative of the values glorified by The Apprentice. This is a show about making money and beating the competition - any way you can. A cheap and junky product is fine - if it means a higher profit margin. There is, of course, a good side to capitalism - the side that involves making and selling a quality product that meets a genuine need in the marketplace. But that's not what this series is preaching. This is a TV parable about how low one must go to ascend into the kingdom of winners.

It's hard to predict how The Apprentice will be received. The series is cleverly crafted for the highly competitive and economically uncertain times in which we live. Like scratching a rash, some viewers undoubtedly will find vicarious "pleasure" in seeing Trump fire an applicant each week - even as they worry about their real-life bosses and jobs. On the other hand, maybe Trump will remind viewers of the unbridled greed of top executives at places like Enron.

"Donald Trump is the last of the great tycoons," Burnett said in a recent press conference, as an explanation of why he thinks viewers will love the series.

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He could be right about Trump being the last tycoon, but dead wrong about the way tycoons like Trump are playing in the heartland these days.

TV tonight

What: The Apprentice

When: 8:30 tonight

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: A reality TV parable about how low one has to go to rise at Trump Towers


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