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Martha gets out of the kitchen but feels the heat

Times Staff Writer

There are those of us for whom news that Martha Stewart would be hosting her own version of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” was something akin to learning that Anakin Skywalker had thrown in with the Dark Side of the Force. Would she be able to preserve the light that shone bright within her? Or (as many believe) had she been a Sith Lord all along?

The question remains unsettled, though it is clear at least that she is not Donald Trump. “The Apprentice: Martha” premiered on NBC Wednesday, a week and a half after the launch of Stewart’s daily talk ‘n’ stuff series, “Martha” (produced, like “The Apprentice,” by Mark Burnett). Where “Martha” gives us Stewart as Oprah, a capable everywoman who also happens to head a media empire, “The Apprentice” gives us the mogul as everywoman -- a simple putterer in kitchens and gardens who became “America’s first female self-made billionaire,” as she said. “And it felt really good.” Both versions are of course heavily orchestrated, and because they are, seem the phoniest when they strive to seem the most real.

On “The Apprentice,” Stewart merely steps into the template already built for Trump. The tone is lighter, and the taste is better, the host’s smile more winning, but the game is the same: Sixteen contestants, or candidates, or applicants, or what you will, compete for a job with a famous rich person. (In Stewart’s show, this prize is described only as “to take a job in some aspect of our company and work with me very closely and to create something, maybe new, maybe different.”) Each week there’ll be some sort of “challenge,” representing an element of real-world business, creating much drama and leading to the elimination of a player. Although Stewart claimed to be “looking for a team player, because that’s the way we work here,” the contest itself is not designed to reward team players but rather those who know how to subvert teamwork to their own ends.

Like “Martha,” in which she is required to appear interested in celebrities and to whip up the crowd, “The Apprentice” is not a perfect fit. Her natural television habitat is a kitchen, or a garden, or some quiet place where she can fashion a speedboat out of construction paper, pipe cleaners and spit. (It’s why it wasn’t hard, or even especially worrying, to picture her in jail.) Her recent detour through the justice system was briefly acknowledged, and in the vaguest terms: “incredible challenges,” “difficult times.” “But I learned from my experience,” Martha says, “and I never lost my optimism.”

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Indeed, negativity is not her style. Early in the show she seems to be having trouble articulating just what she’s going to have to do at the end of it: “One of you will be asked to ... go home.” (Said with a rising note on “home,” that made this seem like not such a bad thing at all.)

We didn’t learn much about the players Wednesday, other than they were excited to be there, and that the chance to work for Martha represented the fulfillment of their desires, dreams and destiny. They divided themselves into teams, settling on “creative” and “corporate” types, and interestingly, it was the corporate team that won the first competition, one that would have seemed built to fall to the artistes -- to produce a children’s book. (The winners did a little market research.) The creative team, meanwhile, cracked under the weight of big heads, childish bickering and an inability to meaningfully organize. Presumably, back in their own worlds, they handle their work and themselves with more aplomb, maturity and disinterest than they appear to do here.

Like all such shows, “The Apprentice: Martha” reads best as a social experiment designed to see just how quickly civility disappears under the pressure of competition. Some of the contestants are so extravagantly, cluelessly self-approving that you want to reach through the screen and smack them. The challenge for the producers is to keep these troublemakers around as long as possible, adding color and drama and making their eventual elimination all that more satisfying.

For that is an essential part, if not the actual keystone, of the show’s appeal: Not so much to see the good rewarded as to see the bad punished. Shows such as these offer a wish-fulfilled world in which the loudmouths, the bullies, the snakes and the sneaks are told off, punished, and sent away as they are often not in the world we live in. It is a chance to see them smote down by a higher power, shamed nationally.

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When Stewart did come to her “You’re fired” moment, it sounded creepily personal. “You just don’t fit in,” she told Loser No. 1. “Goodbye.” And yet, good manners and caring prevailed. (Good manners at times may be only the appearance of caring, but that is not hay.) She sat down and wrote a letter, “I am sorry you are the first to go. Not to fail, but not to fully succeed.... Good luck, travel safely, it was great to meet you. Cordially, Martha Stewart.”

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‘The Apprentice: Martha Stewart’

Where: NBC

When: 8 to 9 p.m. Wednesday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Martha Stewart...Host

Executive producers: Mark Burnett, Jay Bienstock and Donald Trump. Creator: Mark Burnett.

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