Martha makes ... nice?

With "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," America's tastemaker makes like a kinder, gentler Trump. Bring back the real Martha!

Published September 22, 2005 2:10PM (EDT)

On paper, the idea of letting Martha Stewart host her own version of "The Apprentice" must have looked brilliant and fun, like one of those clever, beautiful crafts you're always seeing in her magazines and TV shows and vowing to one day try to create yourself. The thing about those crafts, though, is that, inevitably, you screw up the implementation: You fold your origami picnic table backward, say, or end up creating a yarn flower that looks vaguely like a bloodstain. The endeavor often ends in failure, a sticky mess of glue, dried flowers, pipe cleaners -- whatever the craft, pipe cleaners are always involved -- and the heavy stink of personal failure.

Something similar seems to have occurred in the implementation phase of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," which premiered Wednesday on NBC. In theory, Martha Stewart's reality show should be brash, bold and original, like its host often is. But the reality doesn't match the theory. Instead, Stewart's new show is banal, sometimes boring and, worst of all, mostly just a retread of ground already well covered by its big brother, Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" (the fourth season of which begins Thursday night). Indeed, Martha comes off, here, as Donald-lite: Where Trump is bellicose and hammy, Stewart is friendly and casual, as if instead of hosting a reality game show on network TV, she's running an egg hunt for the girls at the prison in Alderson, W. Va. There's no urgency to her tone, and there's scarcely a rumor of suspense anywhere in the program; though sparks fly here and there, if you're familiar with the broad rules of the game -- and after three seasons of the Donald's fast-waning show, how can you not be? -- you'll guess the winning team, and the losing contestant, within the first 35 minutes of the broadcast.

Stewart herself -- the chin-up, ex-con, marketing-genius, comeback-kid Martha that we all know and love -- is nowhere to be found on this show. "The Apprentice's" Martha has been lobotomized; she smiles constantly, and appears ecstatic about everything. She's so ebullient at a dinner with the winning team that one of the contestants, a fashion company owner named Howie, ventures, "I think I could possibly be falling in love with Martha Stewart ... but, let's keep that low." And after she fires a contestant -- her tag line is "You just don't fit in" -- she writes him a nice note explaining her reasons, the sort of move that would cause the Donald's hair to run up a tree and hide in shame.

Martha's nice-gal persona is, of course, probably just a matter of branding. For one thing, her "Apprentice" must differentiate itself from the Donald's, and casting her show as the nicer of the two -- more like a weeks-long picnic than an apprenticeship -- may prove a profitable track: Even if Trump's bombast is mostly ironic and knowing, surely there are some people who can't stand the fellow, and for these people Stewart may seem more palatable. (Will there be folks who regularly tune in to both "Apprentices"? Yes, but -- how to put this kindly? -- they just don't fit in.)

But Stewart's got more riding on the show than simply ratings for NBC -- the thing also serves as her reintroduction to America, a second coming out for a tastemaker who found herself (unjustly) banished from the world she'd made for herself. She is right, then, to play things a little conservatively, to stay away from the ego and immodesty we see on the other "Apprentice." And she'll probably move a lot of product by playing nice: Though she smiles too much, the Martha here is never creepy, and everything we see on the show -- especially her wondrous office space -- simply gleams. Contestants on the "Apprentice" franchise have always been an attractive lot, but on this version, as pretty as they are, the people seem like background distractions; the Martha Stewart-designed conference rooms and kitchens are the real stars.

"The path to success has not always been easy -- I've faced incredible challenges, and I've gone through difficult times," Stewart says at the start of this first episode, her one fleeting reference to her legal troubles. She adds: "But I learned from my experiences, and I never lost my optimism." Even if her show never matches the Donald's in drama or suspense, if its primary goal is to rehabilitate Martha -- to show us she has more Good Things in store for America -- it's probably doing its job, and she has good reason to be smiling as much as she is.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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