Why 'Celebrity Apprentice' still works
When "The Celebrity Apprentice" returns to NBC Sunday night, before moving to its Monday night timeslot, it will have been off the air for almost two years. It was a season that was in limbo, and then was finally filmed, and then was in limbo again.
Why delay the show so long? Its ratings, which have fallen both since it was a huge hit in its early years and since it morphed into a celebrity-only version of itself? Donald Trump's constant stupidity eruptions? NBC's sudden lack of need for two hours of reality TV filler every week? It's unclear.
However, based on the way NBC treated the show over the past 18 months, this could be the last "Celebrity Apprentice," either forever or for another several years, unless its new timeslot, absence, and cast draw more viewers.
If the show is cancelled, some people will celebrate its demise, but its cancellation would be unfortunate. That's because "The Celebrity Apprentice" is a thoroughly enjoyable, competently produced, interesting and even insightful competition.
Yes, I completely understand the objections from people who don't love Donald Trump. The archaic gasbag is particularly bad, especially on Twitter, and not just because he says sexist, racist, and just stupid things on a near-constant basis. NBC's Brian Williams once said Trump "has driven well past the last exit to relevance," and he was being kind.
I actually wish he wasn't returning; when the last season ended, I argued that executive producer Mark Burnett and NBC should replace Trump with his daughter Ivanka, who is much better television than her brothers and also seems smarter than any of the people who sit at the table with her.
They did not, but that's okay. That's because "The Celebrity Apprentice" is almost entirely not about Donald Trump. Yes, he gets to make an arbitrary elimination decision at the end of every episode, but he really is beside the point. In fact, at least one celebrity contestant admitted they only "pretend to care" what Trump thinks.
Their real goal, besides attention for themselves (of course!), is raising money for charity, and the show does raise a lot of money -- $3.1 million during its fourth season alone.
But it's the way the celebrity contestants raise money that makes for such great television. Asked to do business-like tasks, such as selling food off a cart or creating a viral video, the celebrities reveal themselves for who they really are. (The worst challenges tend to be the fundraising ones, because they rely so much on the celebrities' connections, though of course they do end up raising a lot of money as a result.)
The demands and stress of the tasks make some people shine (Arsenio Hall, Clay Aiken) and cause others to fall (Gene Simmons, Melissa Rivers, Dennis Rodman). It's fun when they make spectacularly bad choices, or just do things that are embarrassing, such as country singer Clint Black pretending to masturbate with All detergent.
Some celebrities try to control their teams, some reveal themselves to be creative geniuses. There is no other reality series that ends up giving audiences such a clear view of raw, unfiltered celebrity behavior. Of course the show is edited, with the most sensational and dramatic moments condensed into each episode, like all reality television is. But it is not manipulatively edited; you get a clear sense of what is happening and what each celebrity contestant is doing.
This year, the celebrity cast includes Vivica A. Fox, Gilbert Gottfried, Lorenzo Lamas, Geraldo Rivera, Kevin Jonas, Shawn Johnson, Leeza Gibbons, Johnny Damon, Terrell Owens, and Keshia Knight Pulliam, never mind Kate Gosselin and others.
That is a crazy list! Most -- okay, all -- of these people may not be A-list stars, but they are interesting people, and people with strong personalities who will show us how much or little they have to offer when the challenges begin.
They'll do so on a show that has strong production values. Like Burnett's "Survivor" and "The Voice," "The Celebrity Apprentice" looks terrific, making New York's chaos seem attractive and often beautiful. The show also has a lot of product placement, with companies sponsoring each task, but it never shies away from allowing the celebrities to badmouth a product or a company's executive. Or, you know, pretend to use its product as lubrication.
This is a format that works. Its title may no longer make any sense, and its alleged star may draw too much negative attention. But "The Celebrity Apprentice" transcends its host, and if it leaves television after this season, it will be missed.