Mogul’s Trump card

Times Staff Writer

With tonight’s premiere of Fox’s “The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best,” America now has two television series in which ambitious twentysomethings vie for the favor of a very rich man, and for the chance to make a lot of money in his service. Already in its successful second season is Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” (NBC), which might better be titled “Survivor: Manhattan,” wherein the famed borrower, builder and occasional filer for bankruptcy exerts his powerful spell over a passel of wannabe moguls.

The appeal of “The Apprentice” eludes me -- perhaps because I am old enough to remember when MBA was a dirty acronym, and there was more to life than money, or so we were quixotic enough to believe. I am told by fans of the series that it offers valuable lessons about leadership, but there is something so, um, 1980s about “The Apprentice,” with its complement of young people desperate to please the boss, to bask in his dim glow. The wonder with which they regard their Trumpish surroundings, as tasteless as they are costly -- Graceland is refined by comparison -- I find truly unsettling. (The Trump aesthetic may be summed up in two words: “big” and “shiny.”) And given how readily their desire to win -- the last one standing gets a real job with the Donald -- translates into a willingness to shift blame or grab credit, they make remarkably unpleasant company, though it fits them for work in government should they fail here.

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Trains, Virgin Just About Everything, is a different sort of billionaire -- his success, for one thing, is founded on providing quality goods and services to the general public at a reasonable price, rather than on the inflation of real estate -- and he wants you to know it. “The Rebel Billionaire” posits him as the Anti-Trump, making the point explicit in a scene in which a Trump look-alike emerges from a limousine as Branson gets out of a taxi -- his actual habitual mode of urban transport.

Without making any claims for Branson’s moral superiority -- of which I can speak with no authority at all -- he appears the groovier of the two, and not merely because he has better hair. (Trump’s failing comb-over strikes me as a metaphor for the state of the union.) One feels -- rightly or wrongly -- that anyone who doesn’t want to be a millionaire has no place in Trump’s world, while Branson wouldn’t care how much money you had as long as you could give him a good game of tennis or chess, or would be up for snowboarding with him down Everest.


Trump is not incapable of humor, even of the self-deprecating sort; but he does not seem like much fun -- or at least the character he has chosen to play on TV does not seem like much fun. Trump doesn’t take drugs, drink, smoke or even drink coffee. Branson might do some of that. Trump lives in a suit. Branson does business from a hammock on a private island. He dressed as a bride for the opening of Virgin Brides. He arrived at the New York casting call for “The Rebel Billionaire” via jetpack.

Branson’s show makes a calculated attempt to one-up “The Apprentice” -- in a finish reminiscent of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the last one standing will supposedly (to his or her surprise) be given the reins to Branson’s “entire business empire, 360 Virgin companies,” at a salary of a million dollars a year. (Cheap, when you think about it.) As on “The Apprentice,” the contestants are all young and good-looking, TV reckoning weight as a moral failing and age a kind of failure of the will. (Branson at 54 -- only four years younger than Trump -- is ridiculously fit, and determinedly boyish.) They are lawyers and salesmen and “entrepreneurs” and also all Americans, which is strange only until you consider that the real reason this series exists is to build the Virgin brand in the U.S. “In one fell swoop we should get Virgin completely well-known in the States,” Branson told Fast Company magazine last month.

Where “The Apprentice” offers just a kind of magnified version of Junior Achievement -- teams are sent out to design a toy or an ad campaign or make money off of dogs -- the point of “The Rebel Billionaire” seems to be to determine who can best keep up with Sir Richard. Tonight’s episode has some of the entrants walking a plank between two hot-air balloons -- Branson is a famous long-distance balloonist -- a couple of miles above the British countryside.

Coming attractions -- including a trip over Victoria Falls in a barrel -- resemble nothing so much as a trailer for the next James Bond film. (“Live and Let Die” is the series theme.) This suggests the entrants will be too busy screaming in terror to worry much about jockeying for position.

“The Apprentice” and “The Rebel Billionaire” describe two roads to the same place -- Branson is no less a capitalist than Trump, and Trump no less interested than Branson in finding a candidate of ability and character. Business is business. But “The Apprentice,” with its “boardroom” reckonings and finger-pointing, suggests a business world ultimately based on manipulation and fear, while Branson wants to share the love. If Trump operates from the top down, Branson builds from the bottom up: “Convention dictates that a company look after its shareholders first, its customers next, and last of all worry about its employees,” he has written. “Virgin does the opposite.”

And so “The Rebel Billionaire” begins with Branson disguised as a taxi driver, checking out how the contestants treat an ordinary bloke -- and two who don’t treat him well are sent packing before they’ve finished their first glass of champagne. The episode climaxes with a tea party on top of a hot air balloon -- not in the basket, mind you, but on top of the balloon itself -- and when Branson finally has to send home one of his guests, it’s with real regret, a heartfelt hug and the knowledge that they’ve shared some crazy life-changing experience. None of that cold-eyed “You’re fired” stuff. This is how a billionaire rebels.


‘The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best’


Where: Fox

When: 8 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for strong language)

Richard Branson...Host


Executive producers, Richard Branson, Kevin Lee, Lori Levin-Hyams, Laura Fuest, Tod Dahlke. Creators: Lori Levin-Hyams, Laura Fuest, Tod Dahike.