Last week, NBC decided to follow up its never-fail and moribund Friends with the debut of The Apprentice, a show in which 16 frantic candidates will attempt to win a high-salaried position within Donald Trump's empire. The first episode has already been rerun, and the show is indisputably pop heat-score: Its ratings are soaring, and David Letterman has begun to speculate, like many of us, as to how "insane" Trump's hair actually is.
"I worked hard and used my brains," Trump announces in the voice-over to the introduction, as the camera pans over Manhattan's winners and losers -- women with attaché cases, and men on park benches. As he boasts of his celebrity, the producers are only able to furnish a shaky photograph of Trump and Don King, quickly followed by a shot of The Game, a book that is only marginally less edifying than Ken Dryden's perorations on success.
Yet, suddenly, and virtually in spite of himself, the dead-but-for-the-burying eighties real-estate mogul is enjoying the kind of revival generally reserved for le grand zombi at ancient Voodoo ceremonies.
Reality TV is now clearly less a trend than a fixture: These programs are what variety shows were to the 1970s, a genre capacious enough to include, in the latter instance, the sad antics of The Captain and Tennille; Donny and Marie's blazing rock versus country battle, and the mere notion that Harvey Korman was a major comedic talent.
And most of the reality shows, in their fast and deviant multiplication, are so horrible, one is reminded of Michael Ondaatje's portrayal, in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, of a sadistic dog breeder "clinically and scientifically breeding the worst with the worst" until the animals were "out of their minds being pressed out of shape by freakish new bones that grew into their skulls."
The Apprentice is a rare exception: It is compellingly coarse and hideous, yet utterly lacking in self-reflexivity. When the beast men of Average Joes tumble from the bus to nauseate their sexy arbiter, it is obvious that they are in on a joke aimed like a rifle at their ugliness; and when Paris and Nicole swan through Arkansas, they know their venality is the sell, not their fish-out-of water circumstances.
However, when Donald Trump, formerly and constantly referred to by Spy Magazine as a "short-fingered vulgarian," appears in his role as the man who can send his acolytes to the boardroom or "the street!" he seems fantastically unaware of how wonderfully repellent he is, which, at long last, creates a program in which we are not asked to suspend our disbelief, to play along with a game that is rigged from the start.
The first episode of The Apprentice was as reminiscent of and as riveting as the marriage of Liza Minnelli and David Gest, as both travesties were so riddled with greed, deception and delusion.
The men-versus-women decision of the competitors feels as eighties as Trump's once-credible cachet, a cachet that now is comparable to hearing Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? in an elevator (before picking up the emergency phone and insisting you are trapped in an inferno).
The Apprentice competitors are impressive, in the way that eighties greed was impressive: If this decade were a person, it would be a hirsute man in a hot tub, wearing only a gold coke spoon while seducing his moussed blonde girlfriend to slip out of her shoulder-pads and light a cigar with a hundred-dollar bill.
When the girl squad, anachronistically self-titled the Protégées, won the first round, they were invited to Trump's private penthouse, where, according to him, he rarely entertains anyone but "presidents and kings" (was he referring to the ersatz nicknames of the sous-socialites he consorts with?) The penthouse is best described in Michelle Pfeiffer's nasal-voiced observation of Scarface's car: "It looks like somebody's nightmare." An endless vista of pink, veined stone, obscene chandeliers and water-spouting statuary, Trump's sanctuary looks like the vomit of an angry decorator; yet it provoked the following reactions from the girls: "Now this is rich. Rich. I mean this is rich."
The losing squadron was asked to the boardroom, where one of them would be fired or "fiy-ad" (in Trump-speak). My favourite, Sam, an unparalleled ass-kisser who must floss with toilet paper, suggested the men on the block literally crawl into The Donald's office, was spared, proving that in order to "bag the elephant" (to cite Wall Street, an obvious homage to Trump), one must stuff its trunk with peanuts, and walk behind it with a shovel.
In the 1980s, Trump seemed as unstoppable as gold lamé, and although he recouped his fortune following a 1990 crash that prompted him to tell his daughter Ivanka, on film, that every homeless person he saw was "richer" than him, he never quite recaptured his public presence, fulfilled his invented new title "The Comeback Kid."
With The Apprentice, he may -- not as an entertainer of imaginary presidents and kings, but precisely as the vulgarian he always was: the man who ditched his wife on a ski-slope; the man who terrorized New York with his blighted vision; the man who always aggrandized himself and seduced others, like an unpopular child with a terrific set of Hot Wheels, with his possessions, his definitively nouveau riche idea of wealth's advantages.
In one of its last issues, Spy celebrated Trump's imminent bankruptcy with a cover image of him crying, his head superimposed over a baby's body. The headline ran, "Little Donald: Unhappy at Last." Surely even Graydon Carter, who moved from Spy to Vanity Fair, must understand that in this as-yet to be defined decade, we are torn between irony and affection; and that affection is gaining impetus.
Watching Trump fly in his personal helicopter as his long, perverse hair rises like a beaver's tail; watching him bark out the principles of capitalism in his untutored voice; and watching him refuse to mock the crassness of his simple world-view is an exercise in America's dreaming.
And watching 16 strivers grapple for a piece of him is like watching a birthday party, wherein Trump plays the cash-filled pinata, while the guests blindly wield a stick. Whatever our objections to the dire nuances of city development, Trump remains among the staunchest of visionaries, whose dream of an empire of marble and glass will not be impeded; whose power, however ludicrous in its performance, offers objectors two options -- play along like you love it, or you're fired.