14 years in and I’m still watching Lord Sugar hiring and (mostly) firing hapless, besuited candidates on the UK version of The Apprentice, while his former US counterpart sits in the White House hiring and (mostly) firing hapless, besuited members of his senior staff.
As the latest season of the show concluded last Sunday, I found myself asking why I still watch it. It’s a good question. Every year I complain about how tired the format has become. And yet every year I keep coming back for more of the same.
Same is bad, same is good
After so many years, any show will start to feel a bit samey. But there is a strange duality to The Apprentice. What makes it feel stale is also part of its appeal.
On the one hand, it feels like we’re watching the same reality TV stereotypes doing the same tasks and making the same mistakes. On the other, part of the fun as a viewer is that same familiarity. We recognise what’s going to happen before the candidates do. It’s like going to a pantomime and shouting “Behind you!” or “Oh no, he isn’t!/Oh yes, he is!” on cue. We revel in the schadenfreude of it all and in a way it makes us part of the show too.
This year’s edition was no exception. Familiar tasks reappeared: the scavenger hunt, the advertising task and the TV shopping channel. Karren Brady rolled her eyes; Claude Littner sighed; Lord Sugar trotted out terrible puns.
In among the smattering of vaguely competent contenders, we had the usual reality show characters: the posh one, the quiet one, the blaggers, the alpha personalities and, of course, everyone’s favourite, the thinks-he’s-brilliant-but-is-actually-unspeakably-awful one. Step forward, Kurran Pooni: the unemployed extra who couldn’t act and who believed he was the love-child of Spielberg, Tarantino and Scorsese. Only better.
These archetypes are familiar and comforting to us. We had seen the likes of Daniel and Kayode and Jackie and Khadija before. The faces and the order in which they exit the process may change, but their role in the narrative remains largely the same.
Two worthy finalists, a sham of a final
Unusually, we ended up with two finalists with interesting, viable business ideas. Runner-up Camilla Ainsworth’s nut milk product was very much on-trend. Meanwhile, winner Sian Gabbidon’s reversible swimwear brand showed off her talents as a designer.
However, it’s the final episode which remains the Achilles’ heel of the series. As usual, the finalists went head-to-head to launch their respective businesses: come up with a brand name, prepare a digital billboard and a 30-second TV ad, and finally deliver their pitch at London’s City Hall.
And herein lies my problem with the final. It’s a sham; a fictional confection devised purely to create an hour of television under the guise of a task. In reality, the finalists have their branding prepared in advance, the businesses will never promote themselves on TV (not that you would ever want to use the ads that are produced) and Lord Sugar’s decision is based not on the pitch and subsequent boardroom interrogation, but rather on the weeks of due diligence and forensic examination of the candidates’ business plans that follow the actual filming of the episode.
But, of course, an hour of accountants, lawyers and industry experts dissecting a business plan wouldn’t make for very interesting TV, would it? So instead we are led to believe that everything we see on screen is somehow important, whereas in reality it’s just a sideshow.
Real TV or reality TV?
Which brings me back full circle. Is The Apprentice a real business programme, a reality TV show or a strange hybrid of the two?
Again, there is a duality here. On the one hand, it’s a programme that does focus on commercial skills and may encourage people to go into business. But, on the other, it’s pure film-flam: a show which puffs up a dozen Big Brother contestants (and a handful of budding entrepreneurs) in suits and passes them off as the next titans of industry. At least, it does until Sugar dismisses them in the boardroom in a puff of hubris.
Is this duality a good or a bad thing? And does it even matter? For me, I continue to enjoy the show for what it is. I’m not as avid a viewer as I was, but it’s still on my must-watch list every year. And that’s enough.
By the way, if you’ve never seen Cassetteboy’s brilliant YouTube mash-up of The Apprentice, you haven’t lived. Here it is. (You’re welcome.)