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Donald's Wannabe Slaves

'The Apprentice,' a show that asks us to root for someone to lose his or her job, has found an audience in the midst of a jobless economic recovery.
 
 
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If you or I were to enter Donald Trump’s apartment -- or, as Trump calls it, “the most beautiful apartment in the whole world” -- we would at best stifle a burst of helpless laughter. It is testimony to the combined power of television and greed that the contestants on “The Apprentice” -- NBC’s new internship-as-reality television show -- enter the apartment in a state of awed supplication, cooing and giggling over the gilded door knobs and the too-obvious-to-even-be considered-metaphorical mirrors.

And then they start to suck up. It says a lot about both the show and Trump himself -- who is co-producer and star -- that the apartment tour was that week’s prize.

“The Apprentice” is now in its fourth week, and its relative success in the crowded field of amateur hour productions -- from “American Idol” to “Fear Factor” -- hinges upon its ingenious grafting together of “Survivor” with ’80s teensploitation pic "Risky Business."

The contestants -- who have been carefully selected to represent a wide variety of stereotypes, from the scrappy loud-mouth salesman to the slick, bitchy consultant -- are split into teams of men and women. The teams then go head-to-head in entrepreneur-themed tasks. The first week, they sold lemonade. The next, they designed an ad campaign. Another competition was a kind of conspicuous consumption scavenger hunt, in which teams hunted for the best prices on a shopping list that included gold bullion, a high-end “Big Bertha” golf club and a leg waxing for a member of the team -- including the men. (An altogether painful form of hilarity ensues.)

The losing team sends the three members deemed “most responsible” for the failure to “the boardroom” where Mr. Trump himself decides along with his toadying pair of corporate advisers who will hear “You’re fired.”

What does it mean that a show that asks us to root for someone to lose his or her job has found an audience in the midst of a jobless economic recovery? Are we that callous, or that unselfconscious? Or maybe, like the contestants -- and like our president -- the audience is focused on the prize, not the punishment that’s meted out along the way.

The winner of “The Apprentice” will get the “dream job of a lifetime” with the Trump Organization and a salary of $250,000. It’s never spelled out any more clearly than that, though while watching the show, I often wonder about what this “dream job” might be. The young contestants talk as if it were some combination of a winning lottery ticket and a papal dispensation, alternating between statements like, “If I get that job I’ll be set for life” and “I’ve got to let Mr. Trump see that I’m the one who really deserves that job.” But what if the job is to arrange The Donald’s toupees in alphabetical order? Or polishing the stripper poles in his casinos?

Even if the job is official fluffy bed inspector or chief chocolate-covered-strawberry taster, it is probably better -- from the show’s producers’ point of view -- to keep the specifics from the contestants. Because once a job’s duties are delineated, you can ask reasonably yourself, “What would I do to get it?” But if it’s some imaginary “dream job of a lifetime,” how do you put a limit on what you’ll sacrifice? And make no mistake: The sacrifices made by the contestants on “The Apprentice” go much father than simply unsightly leg hair.

There are the relatively minor indignities of the tasks themselves, but then there’s what they do to win. The women’s team has resorted to flashing their bellies at fishmongers to get a better price on squid on the luxury-item scavenger hunt. A member of the men’s team openly begged Trump -- and asked if it would help if he got on his knees -- to keep his place on the show.

I suppose the drawing and quartering of an individuals’ dignity is at the heart of the appeal of all reality shows; what makes the shamelessness of the “The Apprentice” contestants so engrossing is the poverty of the stakes they are competing for. The competitors on other shows win money; but some poor saps on “The Apprentice” are going to have to keep suffering humiliation at the hands of The Donald, long after the final credits end.