NBC and Martha Stewart continued National Martha Stewart Resurrection Month last night with her version of an act pioneered by another endearing symbol of American capitalism, Donald Trump.
The busy ex-con, sprung from prison in March, where she had been sent for lying about a stock sale, presided over "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." It was much like Trump's reality series, except with a new catchphrase and possibly even more odious "candidates" vying, for some reason, to work for the domestic empress.
Martha's prime-time premiere was the most eagerly anticipated television debut for Martha fans since about a week ago, when her daytime TV show (cleverly called "Martha") debuted. Martha's daytime and prime-time labors are, of course, in addition to overseeing her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and her company, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, not to mention checking in with her parole officer.
What's more, Martha's Kmart ads are back on the air, and on Sunday, CBS will air a TV movie, "Martha Behind Bars," with Cybill Shepherd reprising her 2003 "Martha, Inc." role as you-know-who you-know-where.
Martha, Martha, Martha. Sheesh.
The big suspense last night was what buzz phrase Martha would use to kiss off losing contestants, a la Trump's "You're fired!" This may give some sense of the show's inherent level of suspense. Martha, of course, already had a motto, but "It's a good thing" would have been undescriptive of anything that transpired on the opening episode.
So, Martha went with "You just don't fit!," which conveys just the sort of haughtiness and condescension you'd expect from Frosty the Snow Woman. (Entertainment Weekly suggested "Your goose is cooked!" and "Your souffle has fallen!")
Stewart's all-too-well-publicized felony convictions and prison sentence weren't mentioned during last night's program. The closest she came was during the opening segment in which she bragged about her business successes and then added, over footage of one of her perp walks out of court, "I've faced incredible challenges."
Actually, on paper, Martha would seem to make a better "Apprentice" major domo than Trump. Back in his '80s heyday, Trump was known for his dealmaking, not his ruthless management style, and his corporate-shark act on "The Apprentice" seems like just another of his self-promoting flimflams. Martha, on the other hand, has long been portrayed and parodied as a harsh perfectionist, a tyrant wrapped in a sunny domestic goddess shell. Plus, heck, she's done hard time in the joint.
Trump, who owns a piece of Martha's "Apprentice," and fellow executive producer Mark Burnett set up this second version much like the first. Sixteen contenders vie in a series of challenges, with one eliminated each week by the big cheese (Martha) and a couple of smaller cheeses (Stewart's daughter, Alexis, and smarmy business guy Charles Koppelman, chairman of Martha's company). The last man or woman standing lands a ritzy job, in this case a $250,000-a-year gig in Omnimedia-ville.
The candidates' first challenge last night was to write a children's book that, as Martha kept instructing, would "connect" with "today's children." It was unclear what this meant, but it sounded like a bit of a threat coming from Martha. One team worked up a bland number based on "Jack and the Beanstalk," while the other produced a variation of "Hansel and Gretel." It's not clear why either title was picked, although the presence of a mean old witch in "Hansel and Gretel" may have been a subliminal clue.
Naturally, the teams of would-be Martha acolytes fussed and feuded, mostly over trivia. Trump's "Apprentice" is all about backbiting, and so, it appears, is Martha's. The wormy substratum of society that churns out reality-show contestants seems to be filled with the kind of telegenic young nitwits who would argue, as two allied contestants did last night, over the fact that one ate a banana during a brainstorming session.
Throughout it all, Martha Stewart came off as calm and in control, and almost kindly and wise, although this may not be saying much, considering the competition. Her climactic dismissal of Jeff, one of the two team leaders, was altogether rational and prudent under the circumstances. Martha being Martha, she even took the trouble to write him a handwritten sayonara note.
Too bad Martha is playing Nice Martha for her prime-time turn. It would be great, or at least better, to see more Mean Martha. As is, "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" just isn't a good thing.