First things first: Tyra Banks should be hosting The Celebrity Apprentice instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has inherited the Apprentice franchise from President-elect Donald Trump. (No, I can’t imagine that time or repeat readings will make that sentence feel any less strange.)
In the season premiere, Banks is one of Schwarzenegger’s two boardroom advisers (the second being Schwarzenegger’s nephew Patrick, an entertainment lawyer), and, as the cocreator and original host of America’s Next Top Model, she’s got a real, dramatic knack for corralling competitive TV contestants into a room and dressing them down in the most divisive and entertaining manner possible. It’s a skill that Schwarzenegger, who runs his dramatized meetings with the air of a detached grandfather, hasn’t mastered — and not for lack of testing every damn catchphrase in the book.
In his very first boardroom scene, Schwarzenegger makes an example of his friend Jon Lovitz, at one point cutting him off to tell him, “In here, you call me governor,” though it plays more like a joke between buddies than as Schwarzenegger establishing his command over the room. Pre-show “secretive” hype notwithstanding, it’s no surprise Schwarzenegger’s official twist on Trump’s “You’re fired” catchphrase is “You’re terminated,” which he spices with similarly predictable chasers such as “Now, get to the chopper” (referring to the private helicopter in which the losing contestants are escorted) and “Hasta la vista, baby,” which Schwarzenegger delivers in that brainwashed, programmatic manner that turned all of Arnold’s iconic catchphrases into bumper-sticker kitsch and corny autograph fodder before the turn of the century.
Schwarzenegger’s boardroom mantra, which he prescribes to the contestants at the top of each challenge, is “Crush your enemies” — a reference to his 1982 breakout film role as Conan the Barbarian. That’s corny, too. But cool isn’t the point. This is very, very much Arnold Schwarzenegger’s show now, and very, very much no longer Donald Trump’s show — that’s the point, despite Trump’s executive-producer credit lingering in the opening and closing sequences. Donald won’t be back, perhaps, but his imprint on NBC’s brand-new design is inalienable.
NBC has aired the Apprentice franchise since 2004 with brief interruptions in 2014 and later in 2016, after NBC dropped Trump due to his “derogatory” comments about Mexicans in the speech that launched his presidential campaign. Since Trump would then go on to alienate just about every demographic of U.S. voters (other than his own), it’s somewhat disappointing (if not quite surprising, given the viewership and money on the line) that NBC wouldn’t disavow Trump’s likeness entirely at this point. Trump was crucial to the show’s branding but never the sum of its appeal. Trump sold the catchphrase, but it was series creator Mark Burnett who engineered the competitive magic. The premise: Split a conference room full of contestants into two teams and pit them against each other in the execution of various white-collar projects throughout the season. The flat dismissals of contestants justified the mechanics of a game show that doesn’t brand its winners nearly as distinctively as it brands its losers and the act of losing itself.
In the premiere’s second challenge, a Trident-sponsored jingle-writing competition for a new chewing-gum sales campaign, the men’s team — led by Lovitz — taps teammates Boy George and Vince Neil to workshop the song, while the women’s team — led by Carnie Wilson — produces a boxing-themed music video starring teammate Laila Ali. The series has made a habit of deploying its contestants as interns for great American consumer brands such as Trident, and, as always, the producers play up the notion that there’s some fundamental difference between how men and women will tackle certain challenges; hence the teams being split by gender. Ricky Williams names the men’s team Arete, a Greek word meaning excellence. The women name their team Prima, which they all agree sounds fierce and feminine at once.
Team Arete is fun-loving and sloppy. Team Prima is meticulous and defensive, at every turn prepared to throw each other under the bus before even the first whiff of failure. The contestants are all pretty green, with one exception per team. Carson Kressley, a former Queer Eye host, stands out early as Team Arete’s slickest, most cunning player. WNBA champion Lisa Leslie, who treads cautiously in Team Prima’s second brush with elimination, is so on-message and bulletproof in collective defeat that she gets Schwarzenegger to fire her team’s unquestionably competent project manager Wilson instead of her. Leslie, Kressley, and Banks are the naturals. Compared to the three of them, Schwarzenegger is every bit the apprentice himself.
Still, it’s easy to see why NBC would’ve tapped Schwarzenegger to inherit the franchise from Trump, though now it’s hard for me to imagine that the network will necessarily trust Schwarzenegger to run it indefinitely, or that he’d necessarily want to stick around for more than a season or two. Schwarzenegger, already a two-term governor and Hollywood superstar, has turned to The Celebrity Apprentice to reimagine himself as an authoritative businessman just for the hell of it, I suppose; or perhaps this is now an official path to the presidency (although Schwarzenegger wouldn’t be eligible for election, since he wasn’t born in the U.S.). The few moments in which Schwarzenegger does allow himself to address the contestants for longer than a sentence or two, he waxes not about industry or governance, but about his bodybuilding career, which taught him all sorts of lessons about advertising and physical endurance. Schwarzenegger leaves it to Banks and his nephew to do the actual apprentice-ing — criticizing the teams’ presentations and second-guessing their elimination tactics — while Schwarzenegger himself sits back and lets these first couple of meetings run their course. Trump would sometimes sit like this, with his fingers pressed together on the table, as a quiet gesture of disapproval. Schwarzenegger just seems bored.
When he does speak up, he’ll occasionally needle his stupefied contestants with what I would describe as Schwarzenegger’s actual catchphrase, “Go ahead,” a direction he repeats as a matter of habit, and with a paternalistic reserve, whenever a distressed contestant has stammered into a loss for words. Where Trump once seized such faltering pauses to ridicule and humiliate in a fashion that would come to define his political playbook, Schwarzenegger simply prods, asking for clarifications. He’s a decent boss, perhaps, but that’s no way to crush a human spirit. That’s no way to lose.