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With Schwarzenegger as Host, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ Lacks Old Bite

What was new about “The New Celebrity Apprentice”? “You’re fired” became “You’re terminated,” a catchphrase within a catchphrase — referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career-making film, “Terminator” — that sounded clever for about two seconds. The setting moved from New York to Los Angeles, with a correspondingly sunny new opening sequence (still set to the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”).

Article by Mike Hale

And there was a new host, though if you hadn’t watched the 14 previous seasons of “Celebrity Apprentice” and the show from which it was spun off, “The Apprentice,” you might not have noticed. Donald J. Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned in Monday’s season premiere on NBC, appearing only during the closing credits, and the dreary two-hour episode sorely missed him. The closest the show came to acknowledging Mr. Trump was when Mr. Schwarzenegger, the new host, said: “I’m the new boss. And I intend to be tough but fair.”

Was that “fair” a dig at Mr. Trump, the businessman turned reality-television star turned polarizing president-elect, whose “Apprentice” tenure made him an international celebrity? NBC was in a bind, having claimed to sever ties with Mr. Trump after his first big campaign controversy (when he said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re rapists”) but still cutting him checks as an executive producer of the revamped show.

You can guess at the thinking in the boardroom. (The actual one at NBC, not the elaborate set where Mr. Schwarzenegger now terminates losing contestants.) The network needs to distance itself from Mr. Trump to protect its credibility, and after a strong start, the franchise’s ratings had been poor to middling for a broadcast-network reality series. But if the show appears to be running away from him, it might antagonize some of his constituency, not to mention displeasing a thin-skinned chief executive with influence at the Federal Communications Commission.
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So he was a ghostly presence. Executive producers nearly always get their names onscreen at the top of a show, but on Monday the only opening credit was “Created by Mark Burnett,” giving pride of place to the reality-TV pioneer who made the inspired choice of Mr. Trump as host back in 2004.

And that pointed up the truth that “The Apprentice” never really was Mr. Trump’s show. He was the face of the franchise and participated in the profits, but he was Mr. Burnett’s hired gun. The series may have taken on, or shaped itself around, Mr. Trump’s persona, but it was Mr. Burnett who did the shaping. Mr. Trump’s performance was part of the raw material — an essential part, but a part nonetheless — that Mr. Burnett and his team of editors turned into television.

At a 2010 panel for “The Apprentice” in New York, an audience member asked, “Who is the boss?” Mr. Burnett, a consummate, professional businessman — which is to say, not someone you’d want as the host of your reality show — asked, “Do you think Donald’s going to listen to me?” and carefully explained that “everything during the shooting and decision making is Donald.” (“Decision making” referring to the firings in the boardroom scenes.)

He didn’t bother going on to say that everything before and after the shooting was Mark. But he did say, with an odd touch of defensiveness, “Donald’s executive producer and the star of the show, and we all try and be supportive of that.”

At that point, Mr. Trump, otherwise expansive and genial, sat with narrowed eyes and pursed lips, like a schoolboy who’d just been lectured. It showed a kind of emotional honesty that was crucial to Mr. Trump’s onscreen success. His boardroom-bully act — the scolding, the put-downs, the interruptions — wouldn’t have been as palatable if he hadn’t been so obviously enjoying it. The sheer pleasure he took in saying “you’re fired,” in playing the part of the demonic boss, gave the show a comic dimension that distinguished it from other, more earnest reality competitions.

With Mr. Schwarzenegger, there’s no joy, just a — you’ll pardon the word — robotic professionalism. His rebukes don’t have enough bite, his stares don’t have enough menace. His one noticeable zinger, “You guys are ducking more questions than Congress,” sounded scripted.

The show around him, with its cast of backbiting reality retreads and its blatant logrolling — the first challenge involved a beauty line put out by Tyra Banks, one of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s “advisers” — was pretty much the same as always. There was even a surprisingly direct nod to the Trump years (which featured his older children as advisers) with the presence of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s nephew Patrick Schwarzenegger as the other adviser.

But it was hollow at the center — the onus was on the contestants to make up, in their reaction shots, for Mr. Schwarzenegger’s tepid delivery. (Jon Lovitz and Carson Kressley were best at it, and it won’t be a surprise if they both survive deep into the season.)

Mr. Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, makes sense in the abstract as a replacement host, bridging the celebrity-turned-politician gap from Ronald Reagan to Mr. Trump. But he’s too obviously a performer (and a limited one) trying to fill out an action-hero persona that’s now bigger than he is.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, seems to exist as pure personality — so far it has proved difficult to judge the distance between him and his persona. As he entered the larger and more heavily scrutinized arena of a presidential campaign — with actual stakes, rather than the “Apprentice” prizes of a charitable contribution or a job on a Trump Organization project — that persona became more one-dimensional. The bullying remained, but the joy faded, and the comedy was often reduced to nasty zingers and schoolyard-quality taunts.

Watching “The New Celebrity Apprentice,” it was clear that Mr. Trump’s imperiousness and (seeming) impetuousness had made him an ideal reality-TV boss, while Mr. Schwarzenegger’s cautiousness and rigidity make him a poor fit. (Though perhaps they came in handy in the governor’s office.) The “Apprentice” franchise has never been great television, but Mr. Trump gave it a reason for being. After Monday’s numbingly boring opener, someone needs to take “The New Celebrity Apprentice” into the boardroom, quick.

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