With a dismissive flick of his hand, Donald Trump climaxes every edition of The Apprentice with a barked ''Ya fi-ahd!'' terminating the game for some crestfallen but lucky young person who gets to flee the gilded birdcage of Manhattan's Trump Tower rather than compete for a $250,000-a-year job slaving away for the Donald. Given that in New York City such a salary pays for three months' rent plus a ticket to ''The Producers,'' this may be the first reality series in which the winner is the loser.
Yet ''The Apprentice,'' unlike so many other entries in this television genre, is irresistible. Viewers tired of watching shows about desperate twentysomethings seeking to end their singleton status -- romance novels with commercials -- can enjoy ''The Apprentice'' for the same reason books like ''The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People'' and ''Who Moved My Cheese?'' become best-sellers: We seek counsel from the rich and powerful to learn their secret -- the magic formula for turning a paycheck-to-paycheck existence into a status so exalted that no one in the boardroom dare snicker at a horrific comb-over. This is the allure of ''The Apprentice'' -- that, and having our most cynical instincts confirmed. The game molds the 16 contestants into the (often untrue) big-business clichés that we cling to, which comfort us in our complacent penury. You know the excuses: ''Hey, I may not be rich, but at least I'm not amoral; I behave decently.''
Decency gets you zilch on ''The Apprentice.'' Divided into two teams, the would-be apprentices (who came up with this designation, by the way? It's brilliant: So old-fashioned, so courtly, it mocks the grunt-work goal of the show itself) must prove their business acumen to Trump by accomplishing tasks such as selling lemonade, managing a Times Square restaurant, or getting the best price for an ounce of gold. Meanwhile, each team lives, ''Real World''-style, in a Trump Tower suite, so that cameras can catch them removing armpit-stained business wear and knocking back way too many mostly undeserved brewskies.
So far, fan favorites have been Sam Solovey, the wire-haired terrier in an undertaker's suit whose peculiar combination of incessant yammering and underachieving (he curled up and took a floor nap during one competition) got him booted by the third installment, and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, a D.C. political consultant whose abrasive character dovetails nicely with her massive self-delusion (she claims ''motivating people'' is her ''skill,'' yet she's already been in more fights than Chuck Norris).
Among the rest, I'm curious about Kwame Jackson, for his cagey passive-aggressive game-playing style. There are also Amy Henry, who's awfully cheerful for someone who ''lost it all in the dot-com bust'' and who spearheaded the team's dicey but winning second-week ad campaign that equated an airplane to a thrusting phallus, and Kristi Frank, the camera crew's go-to girl for shots summarizing the action because (and yes, I'm indulging in the sexism ''Apprentice'' thrives on) she's great-looking -- but contributes precious little to most competitions.
I also really dig the two Trump employees who shadow the teams and report back to the boss. One is Carolyn Kepcher, whom Trump introduced in the first episode as ''a killer.'' ''There are many men buried in her wake,'' said Trump proudly, as Kepcher stared cold-bloodedly at the room full of fresh corpses waiting for interment. The other aide, George Ross, is a graying poker face who looks like ''The Simpsons''' grasping Mr. Burns but behaves like the obsequious Smithers -- a very canny business persona.
They're all trumped, however, by Trump. ''The Apprentice'' was conceived by ''Survivor'' executive producer Mark Burnett, who once again shows his skill at casting. Trump, with his perpetual scowl, petulantly thrust lower lip, and hoarse tirades (''I hate people to be late!''), is a surprisingly engaging -- and engaged -- host, managing to look genuinely puzzled by the contestants' bunglings, and airily refusing to remain neutral (''I'm starting to think I may never hire a man again!'').
After initial good ratings, ''Apprentice'' was thumped by Fox's ''American Idol,'' provoking NBC honcho Jeff Zucker to move the show to Thursdays and disrupting Must See TV's long-standing tradition of sitcoms. If the shift leaves ''Apprentice'' quashed by another powerhouse, ''CSI,'' then Zucker -- who, like Sam, is prone to scorched-earth gambles -- may deserve the same fate. Who wouldn't tune in to see some true reality, a network head being told, ''Ya fi-ahd!''