Same old formula, but The Apprentice remains the master of reality shows

The new boardroom line-up (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The Apprentice: season 6, episode 1

After being bumped from its traditional slot earlier in the year because of the general election, The Apprentice returns for it sixth series. And, even though we have seen it all before, what a belter of an opening episode it was.

Does anyone still even remotely believe that the show is about finding “Britain’s brightest business talents”, as the introductory narration proclaims? I suppose it’s better than saying that the show is really about laughing at “Britain’s most deluded and unemployable egomaniacs in suits” – even if it is less accurate.

Other than Karren Brady stepping in for the much-loved Margaret Mountford – how we miss that archly raised eyebrow! – the episode stayed true to its successful formula.

The two teams of eight – one all-male, the other all-female – were thrown straight into their task. We saw the usual battle for supremacy over the team names: the boys come up with the incredibly clichéd ‘Synergy’ (which has been a rejected suggestion on every series I can remember), the girls the more original ‘Apollo’ after the US moon landing programme (motto: ‘failure is no option’). Dan, a sales director who was once an extra in Saving Private Ryan and Joanna, a cleaning company owner, put themselves forward as lambs to the slaughter project managers, but not before Melissa (the blonde, bespectacled one with the Sydney Opera House for a hairstyle) had backed away from the poisoned chalice faster than you can say “free burgers!” at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

The task too was a familiar one – buy ingredients, make sausages, sell sausages (and try to avoid excessive innuendo about handling large sausages, oo-er missus) – and followed a familiar pattern. The boys went down the cheap-as-chips route, with Sergeant Major Dan barking out commands and generally bullying his troops while doing the square root of bugger all himself. The girls eventually targeted the gourmet end of the market, and poor Joanna looked out of her depth as Melissa constantly chipped away at her authority – with a chainsaw. (Maybe she has the old expression wrong and thinks “There is no team in ‘I'”?)

At least the girls had got their sums right and were (mostly) focussed on selling to customers. Stuart adopted the approach of door-stepping potential customers in the street and bullying them into buying his fare, with considerably less success than he subsequently claimed. Dan decided to adopt the wholesale approach of selling in bulk – to a florist. (Whatever next, selling ‘I love the USA’ t-shirts to Al-Qaeda?)

In the boardroom, Lord Sugar delivered his usual Christmas cracker one-liners – “Your CVs look good on paper, but then so do fish and chips” – with the comic timing of a deaf comedian with Tourette’s syndrome. (And, after more than five years, he still can’t pronounce ‘resumé.’) Karren was insightful but looked very serious, with no raised eyebrow to be seen. And Nick Hewer – the real star of the show – rolled out his full array of exasperated “I cannot believe how stupid you are” expressions.

The candidates – most of whom we are yet to get to know – sat there like the proverbial rabbits in the headlights until it was revealed that the girls’ team had won by the narrow margin of £15.

Dan brought Stuart and Alex (an unemployed head of communications who claims to have come up with the idea for the bendy bus) back into the boardroom, but it was a foregone conclusion that he himself would get fired. The losing project manager on the first task always gets fired – surely the contestants know that? We certainly do. (Actually, it’s only the third time in six seasons the losing PM has been fired, but you know what I mean.)

At this early stage, it’s difficult to read too much into people’s characters. On the girls’ team, only Melissa was particularly memorable; it is clear that she will not be afraid to lead from behind and is more than happy to stab people in the back. Or the front, for that matter.

On the boys’ team, we have the usual mix of posh blokes (who Sugar will fire at the first opportunity), motor-mouth grafters (who will be strung along for weeks) and quieter characters who remained in the background this week but are most likely to be vaguely useful and therefore genuine contenders for the final prize.

And every year there is a Syed Ahmed or a Michael Sophocles – a deluded, puffed-up, rent-a-quote comedy creation who is absolutely useless. The sort of character you just know will drive you to spend week after week yelling “Just fire him!” at the screen, until they finally perish a week or two before the final. This year that character is Stuart Baggs – ‘The Brand’ as he proclaims himself – who introduced himself with the line “Everything I touch turns to sold.”(Although, judging by his selling technique in Portobello Market, he may have meant ‘mould’.) He is clearly all mouth, but he is also comedy genius. One of The Apprentice‘s strengths is its ability to play straight down the middle while taking great delight in highlighting every excruciating, embarrassing pratfall the contestants endure – and you can be sure that Stuart will claim more than his fair share of those in the coming weeks.

The overall summary of episode one? Same old formula, same old tasks, same old cast of caricatures for characters. You know what? It doesn’t matter one iota. It’s still bloody brilliant entertainment.

In fact, I think the show’s formulaic nature is actually one of its greatest strengths. Even if you have never worked in the business world, the familiar, tried and tested nature of the weekly tasks means you can predict the team’s mistakes before they have even made them, because we have seen them before. And if, like me, you do work in a commercial environment, you can nod sagely and say “I would never be that stupid” (even if you secretly fear you might).

As long as you’re not hoping to brush up on your leadership or business skills, this remains one of the best shows on TV. Just remember that not everyone in business is as arrogant, incompetent or utterly lacking in self-awareness as this motley collection. We’re not all like that. Well, not all of us, anyway.

The Apprentice is back. For 12 weeks, Wednesday nights are a brighter place as a result.

Episode 6.01 rating: 4.5/5

Links

BBC Apprentice home page

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