Overanalysis: Rich Guy Shows, Part One- Celebrity Apprentice

8 05 2012

I don’t watch a lot of reality television.  The manufactured drama is often intolerable, and watching unlikable people battle for the title of Top Attention Whore has never been my thing.  I got four minutes into a viewing of Jersey Shore before giving up- I hated everyone.  If I want to watch people I hate, I’ll watch a political debate.  If I hate everyone, there are no stakes.  With no stakes, there’s no real drama.  Not all reality shows are like this, but a lot of them are.

Anyway, like I said, not really a fan.  But I do watch some reality shows.  I used to watch the Gordon Ramsay one on Fox where he yelled at everyone for no reason.  Wait, they’re all like that?  Well, I forget which it was.

Now, though, there are two reality shows that I watch regularly: Celebrity Apprentice and Shark Tank.  They have little in common other than that they star powerful rich people.  Celebrity Apprentice is in its umpteenth season (that’s not a number, but I know it’s been on for a while) and Shark Tank is in its… third season?  They’re only like 10 episodes seasons or something.

Without further stupidity, let’s begin the overanalysis…

Celebrity Apprentice

The Celebrity Apprentice stars Donald Trump as himself with his grown children, various cronies, and haircut in supporting roles.  It’s an off-shoot of his former show The Apprentice, in which Trump runs a series of business-related exercises to find a winner and make that person his apprentice.  In the celebrity edition, famous faces compete to raise money for their respective charities.

From a format standpoint, the show actually works pretty well.  Though a lot of the celebs are of the washed-up, “get me some TV time” variety, they’re all generally well-known and it’s fascinating to see if their public persona is true or plays well in a competitive environment like this.

The roster for this season is: Clay Aiken, Michael Andretti, Adam Carolla, Tia Carrere, Lou Ferrigno, Debbie Gibson, Teresa Giudice, Victoria Gotti, Arsenio Hall, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Dayana Mendoza, Aubrey O’Day, Dee Snider, George Takei, Paul Teutul Sr., Cheryl Tiegs, Patricia Velasquez

What made me watch this particular season was my interest in a few of the cast members, namely Star Trek alum George Takei, Indycar driver Michael Andretti, magician Penn Jillette, and TV’s original Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno.  I figured that, at the very least, seeing some of these folks in action would make the show watchable, even if the orchestrated drama got to intolerable levels.

The assigned tasks are mainly based in event planning and/or marketing, so some of the celebrities, while capable people with talents, didn’t prove very useful.  On the other hand, even some of the celebrities who performed well seemed destined for an early departure because they were unable to assert themselves and, in doing so, stir up the drama that a high-profile reality show requires.  It’s this delicate balance- you need to do well but you also need to be interesting (and misbehave a bit) while doing it.

Take two players who departed fairly early- George Takei and Michael Andretti.

From his decades on television and in movies as Star Trek‘s Mr. Sulu to his more recent status as a gay cultural icon and internet sensation (his Facebook page is always putting out great stuff, by the way), Takei seemed like an ideal pick for a show like Celebrity Apprentice.  However, he is also a 75 year-old man and while he seems pretty sharp and energetic, clearly he got confused or frazzled easily.  He is interesting, charismatic, and entertaining, but I personally don’t think I’d trust him to run a lemonade stand, let alone a task with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

Conversely, Michael Andretti has spent his entire life dealing with the rigors of managing and driving for race teams- something that is more complex and unpredictable than anything that the Celebrity Apprentice staff could dream up.  Andretti was booted fairly early but oddly, not because of anything negative he did.  On a task that involved showing off a new Buick sedan, he contributed some commentary but was chastised for not leading the task.  He was also easily the most soft-spoken and least “TV-friendly” of the cast, so it’s fairly obvious that he was simply cut because he wasn’t entertaining enough.  Again, that’s fine, but it’s somewhat misleading to frame a show as a well-defined competition and then drum up reasons to have Trump cut him loose.

Racing legend, 42 Indy victories, not good on TV.

Compare Andretti’s odyssey with that of Teutul, who is more of an engineer and mechanic than he is a television presence.  However, unlike Andretti, Teutul has spent a lot of time on television as one of the stars of American Chopper and, as a result, has at least a cursory understanding of how to play to a reality TV audience.

As Celebrity Apprentice moves along, the typical dramatic archetypes emerge, and this is what really fuels the drama (even if it is heavily edited and orchestrated).  Aubrey O’Day (a mid-20’s model/singer/something) and Lisa Lampanelli surface as heavy-handed creative leaders, Lou Ferrigno and Dayana Mendoza are mindless workerbees, and (interestingly) Arsenio Hall and Clay Aiken strike up a friendship/alliance as regular guys.

The Hall/Aiken alliance isn’t all that shocking when examined, though, as the two really cement themselves as the “every man” characters, commenting on the chaos around them and not getting too caught up in the emotional sludge of any given situation.  Hall lets his emotions get the best of him on occasion, but his bright disposition and genuine wit eventually lead him back to a path of sanity, even when confronting O’Day about her tendency to take all credit.

Aiken, on the other hand, rarely deviates into any sort of lunacy.

American Idol runner-up and worldwide music star Clay Aiken is close to the most surprising aspect of this show (aside from Penn Jillette’s role, which I’ll get to).  Aiken is almost Gomer Pyle-esque in his “aw shucks” persona and southern boy friendliness, and it is either a genuine character trait or he has gotten alarmingly good at faking it.  I’m leaning toward the former, particularly since his strong work ethic correlates to it.  He is the most likeable of all the cast members (or, appropriately, cruises just behind Andretti), and even on the rare occasions where he gets frustrated, he does so in a controlled way and later laments his (mis)behavior.  I knew very little about him prior to seeing him on here and, while I doubt his music is my kind of stuff, he’s earned a lot of my respect here.

Despite the haircut, generally a normal kind of guy

But of all the cast members, the most befuddling is Penn Jillette.  Jillette has worked in television before, but mainly makes a living as half of the magician duo of Penn & Teller, who earn millions each year performing in Las Vegas and around the world.  Unlike most of the cast, he is really as famous now as he’s ever been, and (as Trump comments in an early episode) he is giving up millions in performance fees to go on Celebrity Apprentice to earn just thousands for his charity (he even departs a few tasks to go perform).   Indeed, a $50,000 prize for winning a challenge seems like a pittance compared to what Penn could earn in his day job, and one has to wonder if he’s doing the show simply as a means of trying something new, in a social experimentation sort of way.  He has worked with think tanks in the past and has taken semi-active roles in political and socio-economic discussions, so having a curiosity about Trump’s show wouldn’t be all that surprising.  Still, it seems oddly beneath him, and he sometimes slips into what Aiken defined as a “condescending attitude” during tasks.  He acts as if he’s the smartest guy in the room because, really, he almost certainly is.

Both probably richer than Trump right now

[Side note: It’s always fascinating me that the primary gimmick of Penn & Teller’s act- namely that Teller never speaks- is still ongoing at this point.  The pair have been performing together for over thirty years, and still Teller is a silent performer.  Meanwhile, Penn is doing interviews on CNN and a litany of lucrative side work.  Teller can’t even do a radio interview.  One has to wonder if he is jealous of Penn in any way, or if he’s far more content to be silent.  In a way, he’s found a loophole to fame- no one comes to him for any commentary or bugs him for interviews because he has built his celebrity persona around silence.  Maybe Harpo Marx started it.]

Overall though, the show’s weirdest element is Donald Trump himself.  Ignoring his ridiculous hairline (the whole world knows he’s balding, yet he keeps up this facade) and similarly ridiculous orange-tinted faux tan skin tone, he still seems like a somewhat confused old man trying to mediate a discussion he doesn’t quite understand.  His boardroom interrogations come off as if someone has explained hours of drama to him in two minutes, and he spouts generalizations and half-informed commentary in hopes of spurring an argument.  Even more unsettling, though, is the way he gets caught up in meaningless details like Dayana and Aubrey’s youthful sexiness and Arsenio’s wardrobe.  Indeed, nearly any other context in which a seventy year-old man is doing this would be grounds for some sort of legal intervention.  Furthermore, even his introduction at the start of each task borders on ridiculous (I mean, honestly, it’s laughable when Trump calls Walgreens “a great store”- are we really to believe he’s ever shopped at one?).

Clearly buys a whole lot of Cheetos at Walgreens

Trump’s persona is far more caricature than character at this point, and even his 1980’s and 90’s identity of the rogue millionaire business mogul has been done repeatedly better by the likes of Richard Branson and Mark Cuban (the latter of whom I’ll get to in the Shark Tank analysis).  He was once oddly likeable in a Gordon Gekko “greed is good” sort of ridiculousness, but now his act seems desperate and his golden palaces seem like pathetic over-trying.  His presence as mediator does little more than bog the show down (at least up until he actually fires someone) and the boardroom drama seems like a weak derivative of the drama captured (or created) by tactful editing during the task itself.  One has to wonder if the show would be spiced up more by handing the star role to one of his grown children or cronies, or even some sort of wildlife creature (my vote: grizzly bear).

Overall, the show works… sort of.  Trump’s presence gives the whole thing an unevenness, and the last part of each episode seems like a grinding halt compared to the break-neck pace and drama that precedes it.  It really succeeds in spite of him.  The celebrities’ motivations are what drives the show- and it’s not their quest to help their charities.  Rather, they’re out to prove that they’re smarter than their colleagues, better leaders, and (most importantly) still extremely relevant forces to be paid attention to.  Whether that is petty or not is purely in the eye of the viewer, but it’s hard to say that it isn’t pretty darn entertaining.

Next time: Rich Guy Shows, Part Two- Shark Tank

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