''The Apprentice: Martha'': Scaring the children
Unlike Donald Trump's original version, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart has a tasteful beige exterior: Episode 1 was covered in a frosty patina of perfection from Stewart's tasteful earth-toned pantsuits to the Martha Stewart Everyday pillows and bric-a-brac strewn with casual perfection throughout the contestants' loft.
But if you focused on those surface flourishes alone, you might've missed the fact that in just under an hour, this series introduced enough sexual harassment, hostile-work-environment incidents, inappropriate relationships, and cruel taunts to make Melrose Place's D&D Advertising look like the Girl Scouts.
Right off the bat, we've got Martha's sidekick, Charles Koppelman (chairman of the board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, who apparently wields an unlit cigar at all important meetings) admitting that back in the day, contestant Bethenny lived with his daughter in Paris, which she later revealed is actually a euphemism for having dated Charles' son. I'm not certain how I'd have reacted to the news if I were a prospective apprentice, but I definitely wouldn't have followed the lead of Carrie and Shawn (who kinda looks like Princess Diana after a run-in with a bottle of Aqua Net), both of whom began to gingerly massage Bethenny's scalp and play with her hair. Um, ladies, does Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia strike you as the kind of workplace where baboonlike grooming is encouraged?
In fact, the only two behaviors that might alienate Martha faster would be to, oh, I dunno, fall head over heels for her or turn into an obnoxious homophobe, roles that went to brash New Yawka Howie, of the crazy-beautiful declaration ''I think I could possibly be falling in love with Martha Stewart,'' and Jim, of the crazy-hideous declaration ''Flair [a proposed team name] makes me feel like a limp-wristed sissy boy.''
Good thing for Howie, he has enough personality to make his Martha crush seem both genuine and not quite creepy to home viewers, if not his wife. But Jim who am I kidding? Nobody has enough charm to get away with being that much of a cretin (particularly not if he wants a job in the fields of home design, cooking, and publishing). Unfortunately, this season's least amusing player (who, of course, seems to thinks he's the most amusing) repeatedly cemented his bad first impression. His knuckle-dragging boasts were like something out of a second-rate Stallone flick ''You don't control my actions; I control your actions: Get it right!'' What exactly is this pipsqueak overcompensating for? And doesn't he realize that Martha's presumably gay-friendly associates will never let him win this thing?
As much as Howie, Jim, Bethenny, and a handful of other players made an impression, though, the undisputed star of the show is Martha. You can sense her desire to be the anti-Trump quieter, more dignified, less vulgar but right from the show's opening moments, Martha betrayed the delightfully out-of-touch ice princess and corporate conqueror within: She tossed out zingers like ''Overnight, I became America's first female self-made billionaire. It felt really good.'' Upon meeting the contestants, she recoiled from Shawn's handshake with a simple ''We'll see you inside.'' And she unmercifully told her only daughter, Alexis, plus 16 strangers (and millions of Americans), ''I'm waiting for grandchildren, of course.''
Still, nowhere does Martha approach self-parody more than with her stilted catchphrase for firing contestants. Whereas Trump wears his brashness on his sleeve with ''You're fired!'' Martha clunkily tries to pull something delicate out of her tag: ''You just don't fit in.'' The thudding ridiculousness of those five words really hit hard in the conference room, as Jeff, Jim, and Dawn's perplexed expressions all asked the same question: Does ''You just don't fit in'' equal ''You're fired!''? You could sense Martha wanted to wave her hand and shoo the contestants away, as if they were a trio of terriers who'd wandered into the kitchen. Instead, she ad-libbed a terse ''Goodbye'' and then proceeded to handwrite a letter to the banished one.
It went a little something like this: ''Dear Jeff, Sorry you were so ineffective that you finished 16th of 16 on my new series. I know you must feel pretty horrible about yourself, but at least you had the invaluable opportunity to work with me, however briefly. Cordially, Martha.''
Not that Jeff didn't earn his beautifully cursive walking papers. For starters, his entire team, Matchstick, boneheadedly let all the folks with business savvy escape to the other team, leaving them as an octet of creative types who may not be able to do higher math, let alone formulate and execute a business plan. But I'll give 'em this: Even though their name indicates the whole team is likely to go up in flames, it's a better choice than the rival team's Primarius. Did you see Martha's look of pure revulsion when they announced that one? I mean, you think Primarius is going to impress a woman who names her paint colors things like Dried Fava, Picket Fence, and Broom Handle? Know your market, people!
At least the number crunchers showed some good sense in the challenge, wisely pulling together a focus group and discovering kids prefer chocolate castles, gold, and jovial dudes in khakis to scary tales of tots navigating through the concrete jungle, alone and frightened.
Even though there was never a moment of suspense about which team would be winning this contest, it was still fun to see Matchstick flailing at every turn. Was Dawn seriously expecting sympathy for her teary-eyed reaction to not getting any peace and quiet while using her master's degree in writing to sketch out the tale of Hansel and Gretel? I mean, I don't have a stinkin' master's, and if you want distraction, I can hear the season premiere of Lost unfolding about 20 feet away in the living room. And yet I write.
But Dawn's ineffectiveness was outdone by Jeff's arrogance, and so Martha correctly chose the project manager for elimination. Let it be a lesson to the other players that ''management'' doesn't necessarily mean ignoring everyone else's ideas, doing all the work by yourself, and creepily inviting your female coworkers into the bathroom to watch you shower. Now if any of these kids catch on to Martha's subtle cues that eating and sleeping are for the very, very weak, one of 'em might break out of the pack and win this game with ease.
What did you think of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart? Does it live up to, or exceed, the Donald's version? Was Martha more or less scary than you'd expected? And should Jeff have mentioned Jim's homophobic remarks in the board...er, I mean conference room?