“Shoulda gotten it.” – Donald Trump, on the Emmy denied him for The Apprentice
Donald Trump is known for a television program called The Apprentice. As such, it seems worthwhile, on Election Day, to take a moment to judge an episode of The Apprentice as a singular reality—to pretend for a moment that the past 16 months of the presidential campaign simply didn’t happen, and that the only reason we’re heading to our polling places to cast a vote is to cast a vote between The West Wing, Parks And Recreation, or this business-themed reality show.
Because, of course, we can’t pretend all this happened in a vacuum: Given that some of the most recent polls put Hillary Clinton only a few points ahead, it’s worth re-visiting Trump’s main claim to fame as a political statement, as Paste did in a broad sweep in June. It’s worth slowing down, too, taking a specific episode in, and comparing it with two other political programs that dealt with their politics much more openly—just to emphasize the scale of difference involved, the values on display, and the values at stake.
The first episode of The Apprentice (née 2004) opens in a way that suggests that it’s poised to teach you about business in the way that an episode of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette wants to teach you about love (or in a way that, perhaps, a copy of Reader’s Digest in Good Morning Vietnam wants to teach Robin Williams about comedy.) The camera sweeps across the water and pushes in with a bent guitar note towards the Manhattan skyline: Within seconds, the visual and tonal cues suggest that this is a variation on “Impossible is Nothing,” but made by people who want you to think that they’re serious.
“New York,” a voice says as we see a montage of the city, longing for the footage to dissolve into black and white and for Gershwin’s fluttering clarinet to rise up as high as can be. (Or even for the footage to segue from the opening of Manhattan into something that clearly took inspiration from it, like the music video for Vampire Weekend’s “Step.”)
“My city,” the voice continues. “Where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning.”
After a sleeping homeless man is shown, gratuitously, as an example of failure, and a post-edit glisten is imposed, gratuitously, on The Statue of Liberty—the suggestive example of the possibilities that await someone who strikes figurative gold—we’re given a parade of information as to why Donald Trump is a worthy host of the program, why he’s fit to be a guide for those aspiring to success: He owns buildings, “model agencies, the Miss Universe Pageant, jetliners, golf courses, casinos, and private resorts like Mar-A-Largo, one of the most spectacular estates anywhere in the world.”
Even the opening of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is less on the nose than this, with Stone and company opting instead to have Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” play alongside a montage of New Yorkers heading to work, letting the lone Wall Street man emerge unmoving on the subway, staring at the folded-over paper as he cuts across a street and pushes into an elevator with the rest of the crowd on its way to work. So we pause, and so we pivot.
A gentle sweep across the D.C. skyline. It’s night, and a set of piano chords starts to fade in. “I don’t think we’re gonna run the table, if that’s what you’re asking,” Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) says. “It’s not,” the journalist with whom he’s speaking replies. The tone is gentle and the dialogue immediately assumes a shared knowledge and a shared sensibility, even if the script and the performance haven’t earned it yet.
In the pilot of The West Wing, the President doesn’t appear until the very end. In the interim, we hear staffers talk about what would be the best possible response to Cubans coming to the United States to seek asylum and the problem of anti-abortion extremists.
With the first episode of The Apprentice, we meet George Ross, a sleepy Grandpa vampire, and Carolyn Kepcher, who is introduced as the COO of “one of my companies.” (Which one? Potato Parcel A business called “Mr. Business?”)
Trump announces that the show is going to be a 13-week job interview from “Hell.” (Compare that scene to Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman interviewing Dulé Hill’s Charlie Young, in which Lyman’s care and excitement at finding Charlie intermingle at a rapid clip.) Trump lists a wildly disparate set of tasks he wants the contestants to accomplish, even though a quick Google search suggests that even the most agile and adaptive business tasks tend to be organized around 13-week cycles in the first place. The camera frequently cuts away from Trump when he’s speaking. What is the camera seeking?
The camera seeks a bit in Parks and Recreation, too, but it’s an affected live shot. The camera moves to signal the fact that a human is holding it, with the occasional punch of a zoom thrown in for emphasis.
“You know, when I first tell people I work in the government,” Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) says in her first direct-to-camera interview, “people say, ‘Oh, the government! The government stinks. The lines are too long at the DMV,’ but now things have changed. People need our help. And it feels good to be needed.” (While she’s announcing this, she’s shown trying to shove a sleeping drunk out of a children’s slide with a broom.) The viewer is introduced to a gentle, warm, knowing irony very quickly. Knope may understand that she’s dislodging a drunk from a slide, but this isn’t something that requires any particularly urgent form of emotional engagement: She knows the situation is what it is; she’s clearly processing it; and she’s getting on with her day as best she can.
“When I saw Trump today,” a contestant named Sam tells the camera in the first episode of The Apprentice, “it all came together right there. I want access to Trump. I want to get to know that guy. But I don’t want it to be in the boardroom—back of a limousine, or at a bar with his girlfriend.” Little emotion can be gleaned from his delivery, nor can it be gleaned from the editing.
Trump doesn’t reappear for another 18 minutes: In the immediate aftermath, there’s a close-up of the caviar offered to the contestants. A wine bottle pops. “You’re not going to believe this,” he says when he returns to the screen, made to look like he’s surveying the proceedings from high above. “The men are at that smelly open fish market trying to sell lemonade.”
Does Trump often examine lemonade stands from his helicopter? Does he understand that spreadsheets exist?
“Working for Trump is a very serious business,” Vampire Grandpa tells the contestants in the third and final Trump scene, clearly unaware that the helicopters in his organization are being employed to watch over lemonade stands run by grown men with degrees. “Whoever’s going to get the job ultimately is gonna spend a lot of time with me. And I don’t wanna deal with an idiot.”
These are the three sequences featuring Trump in the series premiere of The Apprentice: the promise of a world ennobled by the Bonfire of the Vanities aesthetic, of it being somehow virtuous to watch Gordon Gecko slowly transform into Patrick Bateman; the assurance that a man in a helicopter looking at a lemonade stand with a furrowed brow isn’t a ridiculous thing (how this clause seems to linger on the edge of becoming a line out of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), that it isn’t worth acknowledging with even the slightest hint of irony; and the fact that someone no one in the audience is likely to recognie doesn’t want to work with an idiot.
One of the many striking things about Donald Trump on the campaign trail was the fact that he wasn’t an “actor candidate” in the way Ronald Reagan was an “actor candidate.” He was complimented with knowing how to “command the media,” but no one, to my recollection, ever called him an actor, because—if we take a moment to step back and think about it—when he was given the gift of a television program, what did he do? What did Mark Burnett opt to do?
Would he write a story about how his business card appeared in the coat of a veteran who died on The National Mall one night, and then spend the subsequent time on screen calling the Veterans Administration and personally visiting homeless shelters to see who knew the man so someone could be at the veteran’s grave come the funeral?
Would he craft the exchange, “Apparently I’ve an arranged for an honor guard for somebody?” “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.” “No, no. Just tell me—is there anything else I’ve arranged for? We’re still in NATO, right?”
Would he write about how to put on a harvest festival in a small town, and how he even got a miniature pony to appear? Would a Frank Capra-style eagle come soaring out of his chest?
Or is that a story for another day?
Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to Paste, he has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.