On the box: The Apprentice

The Apprentice is no longer the ratings juggernaut it once was. But it remains perfect comfort viewing for cold autumn evenings.

Now in its 15th season, the formula is well-trodden and varies little from year to year. But I’d argue that its very predictability is what makes it such cringeworthy yet compelling viewing.

Once upon time, there was a semi-serious business-based show

The Apprentice started out as a semi-serious endeavour. Many of its early winners and contenders came from credible business backgrounds. The tasks genuinely attempted to demonstrate some of the skills that are key to success in the business world – selling, pitching, negotiating – and explored how and why things went wrong.

Of course, that soon changed. Personally, I blame Katie Hopkins, who went into the show with the aim of making a name for herself rather than actually winning. (She quit after the interview stage rather than waiting to be fired.)

But it wasn’t just her. The producers were even more culpable in dumbing down the show. Increasingly, they selected contestants on the basis of their ability to make good entertainment rather than good business. And while many of the tasks remain essentially the same – the scavenger hunt, the TV shopping channel, the advertising task – they have been subtly tweaked to ensure maximum opportunity for pratfalls. This means we get to watch the inevitable post-mortem fall-out in the Cafe of Broken Dreams. Lord Sugar can tear strips off the candidates in the boardroom. Karren Brady will roll her eyes in exasperation. And Claude Littner will sigh despairingly.

All the stereotypes

Today, The Apprentice is little more than Big Brother in suits. Most contestants tick a well-established box. There’s the posh one with the plummy voice (this year, that role is filled Ryan-Mark). The mean-girl Hopkins wannabe (Lottie). Del Boy the market trader who could sell snow to the Eskimos (Thomas). The quiet one who contributes nothing (Iasha). The too-nice-for-this candidate who Sugar puts out of their misery early on (Kenna). 

We’ve seen them all before. And yet every year, just when you think they couldn’t possibly find more candidates who are even more of a caricature than their predecessors, they do. 

Predicatble and manufactured – but still compelling

And it’s the predictability of the tasks that also makes for such compelling viewing. They are by now so familiar that most viewers can tell you what mistakes the teams will make before they even make them. There’s a comforting joy and smugness about being able to laugh at the hapless candidates on screen and say, “Don’t do that, you idiot. How can anyone be that stupid?” Even if, deep down, we know we would probably make the same mistakes ourselves, it makes us feel better to laugh knowingly at the candidates’ expense.

Yes, of course the disasters are manufactured. The producers force the teams into situations where they don’t have enough time or information to make proper decisions. (They’re not even allowed to use Google.) They’re put under massive pressure to perform as individuals. So it’s no surprise that any pretence at teamwork is doomed and conflict is unavoidable.

Apprentice tasks are as artificial as an action sequence in a superhero movie. The explosions are carefully planned, the fight scenes meticulously choreographed. But we don’t care because the end result is entertaining.

They said what?!?

And some of the idiocy is genuine. Every year there are several candidates who display an alarming lack of self-awareness and whose unshakeable self-belief defies credulity. Of course, we know they’re being set up for a fall. It may pay off within a single episode’s narrative. Or it may feed a season-long tall-poppy or redepmtion arc.

And every year there is (at least) one water-cooler moment, that people remember even years later. In season four it was (in his words) ‘good Jewish boy’ Michael Sophocles, who didn’t know what kosher chicken was.

One of this year’s stand-out moments for me was the realisation in the recent scavenger hunt task that not one member of an entire team of supposedly bright candidates knew in what year World War II started. Not one.

So bad it’s good

And so The Apprentice rumbles on. It’s not as fresh and successful as it once was. (A bit like Lord Sugar himself, who has long since closed or sold off most of his actual businesses. Just saying.) It’s trapped in a formulaic format that the producers seem unable or unwilling to change. And yet it’s that predictability that makes it such a satisfying watch for loyal viewers.

We tune in each week to see what egregious error the candidates will commit next. It’s fun to predict who’s next for the chop or who the eventual winner will be. (It’s always one of the initially quiet ones.) We groan at Sugar’s array of awful puns in the boardroom. We look forward to the dreaded interviews, where candidates have to answer the kind of questions every interviewer secretly wishes they could ask but never actually can.

The series is, in truth, a showcase of everything it takes to not succeed in a real-life business. But then it’s not real life. And who doesn’t secretly like a little schadenfreude as we watch a succession of overblown egos getting cut down to size?

The Apprentice is awful. But in a really good way.

Rating: 7/10


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