The unstoppable Martha's closely watched comeback moves to the next level this evening with the long-awaited debut of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart (NBC, Global, 8 p.m.), in which she takes Donald Trump's unique reality hit and makes it her own by making it better. Certainly there's no ruthless intent on Martha's part, but it's still a takeover of The Donald's concept. This may explain why they called her M. Diddy on the inside.
The Apprentice spinoff is Martha's first foray into prime-time network television and a great many viewers will be watching the first show, which opens with a taped feature of a very fit, very blond and beaming Martha, dressed country-casual, and strolling calm as you like through the kitchen of her own Connecticut estate. Martha summarizes her own brilliant career in a brisk video précis, touching on her first book; the K-mart deal; the creation of Martha Stewart Living magazine (2.3 million readers a month!); the lifestyle TV series; the buyback of her company from Time-Warner and creation of her own monolithic media company. "I became America's first self-made, female billionaire," says Martha proudly, as she climbs into the driver's seat of an enormous black SUV. "It felt really good."
The video montage does acknowledge Martha's recent five-month stretch in a women's correctional facility for obstructing justice, if briefly: It's limited to a quick, now-famous clip of a grim-faced Martha outside the courthouse after the guilty verdict. "I've gone through difficult times but I've learned from my experiences and I never lost my optimism," she says.
And that takes care of the first three minutes. The remaining hour of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart is a near-clone of the Donald Trump version.
The only notable difference in the early stages is a new opening song: Trump has stuck with For the Love of Money, by The O'Jays, for two seasons, while Martha's theme is Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), by The Eurythmics.
As befits all things Martha, she starts the proceedings in a civilized manner. After providing a brief tour of her company's offices in downtown Manhattan, Martha hosts a wine-and-cheese welcome party for the 16 hopefuls who've been whittled down from thousands of applicants. These are a different breed of contestants than those seen on the Trump version -- a slightly older group, with a few obvious artsy and design types. They are competing for a job with Martha, after all.
Martha also introduces her two in-house lieutenants, who will appear in each episode as advisors: Charles Koppelman, chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and Alexis Stewart, Martha's daughter, who works somewhere in the building. The contestants are ensconced in a posh loft - located right in the Martha Stewart Omnimedia offices - and then, abruptly, the game is on.
In keeping with the Trump template, the players are split into two teams. The first task assigned seems simple enough: The teams are instructed to update a classic fairy tale for today's young readers, which means writing, designing and devising a marketing plan in less than two working days.
Here again the concept reverts to the Trump technique -- it's filmed and edited in the trademark style and the same ominous music is played throughout. Once again the focus during the challenge falls sharpest on the most disorganized team, which in this instance is the creative group, who are hysterical and bitching at each other right from the start. Over at the corporate team headquarters much cooler heads are at work.
The remarkable part: It's the same show, shot-by-shot, virtually identical, but it works better with Martha. On the original series, The Donald usually seems disconnected, or annoyed. His appearances appear to be squeezed in between his regular schedule of building casinos and office towers. Martha, however, is committed. She's knee-deep into the process and on-site at all times. She's more involved with the contestants, each of whom seems perpetually awestruck in her presence. If Martha isn't having fun here, she's a marvellous actress.
The only other deviation is typically Martha and terribly sweet: The highlight of the original Apprentice (which starts its third season tomorrow night, incidentally) is the weekly boardroom sequence in which Trump ejects a contestant with "You're fired!" and occasionally a jabbing hand gesture known as The Cobra. It's probably the only part of the show he enjoys.
In Martha's version, the final three losers are assembled in a less-intimidating conference room, where Martha releases one with her own catchphrase: "You just don't fit in."
And then, the kicker: Martha immediately writes the dismissed contestant a personal note on her very own stationery, just to thank them for taking part. Oh, Martha. Don't ever change.
Also tonight: Last year's breakout hit Lost finally returns (ABC, CTV, 9 p.m.). No preview screener was made available, but apparently the first new episode begins with one of the castaways designated to descend down into the mysterious hatch, which likely makes sense only to those who follow the show.
And this evening brings two new additions to the Wednesday lineup: Invasion (CTV, 7 p.m.; ABC, 10 p.m.) is slick sci-fi fare. First a small Florida burg is flattened by a hurricane (which is too close to reality, some might say), and then the townsfolk, including Canadian Kari Matchett, begin to act very strangely, which is always a sure sign extraterrestrials have landed.
Also new: E-Ring (NBC, Global, 9 p.m.) is another show from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The series stars Benjamin Bratt ( Law & Order) as a hunky army major transferred to the hallowed halls of the Pentagon, where his immediate superior is a stiff career colonel (Dennis Hopper). There are more stirring speeches in the first few shows than in a dozen army recruitment films. More forgettable filler for flag-waving America.
Dates and times may vary across the country. Check local listings.
John Doyle returns on Monday.