Martha's Apprentice Needs an Edge


By Diane Brady In recent months, Martha Stewart has cast herself as a reformed woman -- slimmer, kinder, more in touch with the common folk. Gone, it seems, is the perfectionist who would hardly crack a smile while tying up tomato plants with designer nylons. Now, on her live daytime TV show, Stewart giggles, raps with Sean "Diddy" Combs, and even ridicules her own suggestion to squirt hot scrambled eggs from a pastry bag after it scorches a guest's hands.

That may be whyThe Apprentice: Martha Stewart, which aired on NBC on Sept. 21, feels more like a trip to finishing school than a trial by fire. The show is a spin-off of Donald Trump's hit, in which ambitious wannabes fight it out for a shot at working with the iconic business leader. What made Trump's show work so well is his own ego and dog-eat-dog demeanor. The guy clearly relishes saying "You're fired!" after chewing out contestants for their various faults.

Stewart, in contrast, has morphed into a mother figure who nurtures more than she needles. Her staff beams as she walks by and greets them, stopping for impromptu meetings. She and daughter Alexis, who once observed that her mom had never gone 10 seconds without thinking about the business, gaze fondly at each other. Forget the bombast of Trump. This boss smiles, mentors, and even writes beautiful hand-written notes of apology and encouragement to people kicked off the show.

STRAINED PREMISE. What saves the show from descending into a hug-fest are the contestants vying for a spot to work with her. Stewart and producer Mark Burnett have assembled a colorful cast of what appear to be conniving, self-centered upstarts who immediately rip into each other like toasty baguettes. Unlike most people who have worked under the shadow of America's most famous homemaker, this lot clearly views the "prize" of employment at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) as their ticket to stardom. As a contestant named Jim says: "It's kill or be killed."

Huh? He clearly didn't register the happy harmony of Team Martha en route to the reception desk. Maybe he's basing his comments on the dragon-lady Stewart portrayed in the Martha Inc. movie by Cybill Shepherd. The one on this show wouldn't kill a fly. In many ways, the contestants come across as more Martha than Martha herself.

And that's a good thing, as the show's premise feels a little strained at times. Sure, Stewart is -- by her own description -- a household name and one of America's most prestigious brands. But there's a reason why nobody makes Christmas ornaments or a salad on prime-time TV. It's boring. Though Stewart's fans may love watching homemaking transformed into high art, the truth is that most people view this stuff as chores.

BREATHTAKING BRUNCH. At least Trump can present Big Business as a glamorous, bad-boy pursuit. When somebody wins his challenges, they may find themselves quaffing bubbly on an obscenely large yacht. Stewart's winners are treated to sushi while sitting on stiff-backed chairs in MSLO's test kitchen.

To be fair, the winning team got there by doing best in the opening episode's challenge: coming up with a modern rendition of a fairy tale. It produced a fun version of Jack and the Beanstalk and won over the children's focus group by picking the crowd-pleasing Howie to read it. The losers, by comparison, managed to make Hansel and Gretel an even darker tale by turning it into a rhyme about two whiny kids who wander away from home without their parents' permission. Imagine the horrified reaction to that in the halls of Martha Stewart Living. The challenge, though contrived, was amusing.

Still, it seems likely that Stewart's apprentices may have to don galoshes or whip up a breathtaking brunch before the series is through. Let's hope the catfights can continue while renovating someone's living room.

But the real appeal of Martha Stewart has always been Stewart herself. Her Apprentice will benefit if she injects more of herself into it. Her speech on the Renaissance roots of apprenticeships is unwittingly hilarious. And you can almost feel Alexis wince when Stewart quips that she's waiting for her only child, now 40 and separated, to make her a grandmother.

ARBITER OF GOOD TASTE? Even the Trump-like affectations seem to verge on parody, with Martha, Alexis, and MSLO Chairman Charles Koppelman perched uncomfortably in the faux boardroom. The newly reformed Stewart, likely no stranger to giving employees the boot in her previous life, seems almost pained at letting an incompetent contestant go. "You just don't fit in," she says sadly.

Luckily, scenes from next week's show suggest an edgier Martha may start to emerge. After all, good manners go only so far. Matchstick might seem like a cute moniker for the self-selected "creative" team of contestants, but wouldn't it have been more fun to tell the entrepreneurial Team Primarius that their name sucks? This is, after all, reality TV.

Before getting immersed in scandal and going to jail for lying to government officials, Stewart proudly cast herself as the arbiter of good taste in America. With this group of contestants, she has ripe fodder to let loose. Prime-time TV, after all, is less about teaching than about entertaining.

Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York


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