The last time “The Celebrity Apprentice” aired on NBC in 2015, it was an aging reality show a decade past its peak in ratings and cultural relevance. Host Donald Trump was mocked for claiming it was the No. 1 show on television. (It wasn’t even close.)
Oh, what a difference two years can make.
The real estate tycoon is now president-elect of the United States. On Monday night, the show that inadvertently helped propel his political rise returned to NBC after a lengthy but rather eventful hiatus.
Given the scrutiny NBC has faced over its relationship with Trump, starting with “The Apprentice,” which he continued to host even while perpetuating the baseless birther conspiracy theory, and continuing with his unprecedented gig hosting “Saturday Night Live” last year, what’s most notable about “The New Celebrity Apprentice” is just how little has actually changed — right down to the closing credits, listing one “Donald J. Trump” as executive producer.
Even the new host — some guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger? — seemed like a bit of a carbon copy, from the tawny mane and bronze complexion to the allegations of serial sexual misconduct.
Given the abundant similarities, it’s easy to understand why Schwarzenegger was picked. His motivations, assuming they extend beyond money, remain a bit harder to fathom.
There was something strange, and perhaps even a bit sad, about seeing Schwarzenegger — who was once considered a rising star in the Republican Party, ran the most populous state in the country for seven years and used to be one of the biggest box-office stars in the world — picking at the leftovers of a guy whose most prominent film role was a cameo in “Home Alone 2.”
For all NBC’s efforts at rebranding, virtually nothing about the show, except for a brief biographical sequence highlighting his journey from body-builder to action star to politician, has been adjusted to reflect Schwarzenegger’s interests or image. Yes, he’s got his own catchphrase — “You’re terminated” — but just barely. (And can anything ever top “it’s not a tumor”?)
Schwarzenegger’s Trump impression was so complete, he even had a younger blond relative, nephew Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, playing the Ivanka Trump role.
And like his predecessor, Schwarzenegger is entirely comfortable hamming it up as an imperious bad guy, admonishing real-life friend Jon Lovitz for referring to him as “Arnold.”
“In here you call me governor,” he said.
There were a few, less contrived moments where Schwarzenegger, for better or worse, stepped into his own — as when he started complaining in German to his nephew about a female contestant sitting across the table from him. (How do you say “rude” in German?)
Or when he boasted, rather cringe-inducingly, of running around naked to promote a gym he managed back in Munich.
The samey-ness permeated the whole show, even the supporting players.
This year’s batch of contestants includes a predictable assortment of musicians you listened to in middle school (Boy George of Culture Club, Vince Neil of Motley Crue), reality TV lifers (Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewife” Kyle Richards), athletes whose names you vaguely recognize (NFL greats Ricky Williams and Eric Dickerson) and professional pretty people (Brooke Burke-Charvet).
The challenges continue to be nothing more than extended advertisements, in this case for new boardroom advisor Tyra Banks’ new makeup line and for Trident (a “giant in the chewing gum industry,” Schwarzenegger helpfully explained).
Even the theme song (the ubiquitous “For The Love Of Money”) is exactly the same. Mark Burnett, couldn’t you at least spring for a remix?
The few tweaks that have been made are entirely superficial in nature. Rejects are sent from the boardroom to a waiting helicopter, rather than a town car. The Schwarzenegger Inc. boardroom is all chrome and glass, in contrast to Trump’s dark wood.
Fatally, “The New Celebrity Apprentice” is, for all its newfound political relevance, just plain old boring. It turns out watching a bunch of kinda-sorta famous people doing fake jobs and getting fake-fired in the name of charity grows old pretty fast. As sincere as Wilson Phillips singer Carnie Wilson might be about raising money for the Weight Loss Surgery Foundation of America, the show just doesn’t have any real stakes. The drama is about as compelling as an infomercial.
Somewhere in hour two, there was a brief, tantalizing flash of intrigue when Boy George, a recovering addict, complained that Vince Neil was drinking wine from a plastic cup during their recording session. (“A bit Jacqueline Susann for me,” he said.) But then it was back to tedious debate about which team had done the better job conveying Trident’s core message, and I began to envy everyone on my Twitter feed who was watching “The Bachelor.”
So don’t worry. The country may be heading into uncharted territory with a former reality star as commander in chief, but at least you can go back to ignoring “The Celebrity Apprentice” just like you always did.
At least until Snooki announces she’s running in 2020.
‘The New Celebrity Apprentice’
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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