NEW YORK, N.Y. - The new season of "The Apprentice" returns the long-running business competition to its non-celebrity roots.
But there's a difference. The 16 candidates who scramble for Donald Trump's winner-take-all favour display somewhat less swagger than their counterparts from past seasons. They have brains, ability, education — and most had good jobs. Then they were slammed by the economy. Sadder but presumably wiser now, they're vying for a chance to get a fresh start with Trump.
"I hate what I'm seeing and I'm going to do something about it," he declares at the top of the show, airing Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT on NBC.
He knows that for the current crop of players, not just their careers are at stake, but the welfare of their families, too. Even their sense of self-worth.
This make-or-break subtext will be all too relatable to viewers, and it gives "The Apprentice" a dramatic new edge.
"We wanted to find people who seem like they should NEVER be out of work," says Mark Burnett, who created the series and, with Trump, is an executive producer.
He points to Alex, with a background in mechanical engineering, who after getting laid off from his job in Santa Ynez, Calif., struggled to make ends meet driving a tow truck. And Poppy, whose prospective job in breast-cancer research fell through when funding dried up. As the series begins, she is living with her parents and taking care of her grandmother.
"The people on the show decided not to lay down and cry about being in a bad situation, but to fight back," says Burnett.
And "fight" is the operative word. Even on the first episode, tensions run high.
David, in particular, wastes no time butting heads with his own teammates. Understandable. A father of five, he was once a successful telecom account manager. The economic downturn not only cost him his job but also his marriage, he tells Trump: "The ultimate goal is to bring my family back together."
Maybe not, if he doesn't learn to control his temper. Meanwhile, conflict makes for good television.
Performing under pressure is key to many of the shows that have made the 50-year-old, London-born Burnett a TV grandee. His roster currently includes "Survivor" (which begins its 21st edition on Wednesday on CBS), "Shark Tank" (which returns on ABC midseason) and the syndicated "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?"
This kind of gamesmanship characterized Burnett's first series, "Eco-Challenge," an adventure race originally airing on MTV in 1995.
Performance in the form of not getting fired before you're even hired is key to "The Apprentice." Premiering in 2004, the show boils down to "a three-month televised job interview, where you're replacing the resume with actual tasks: Either you can do them, or you can't." Anybody can fake a resume, notes Burnett, "but there's no mistake on 'The Apprentice' what you're capable of." And all the while, there's the spectre of facing Trump in the boardroom.
"I think they get less sleep on 'The Apprentice' than (the castaways) do on 'Survivor,'" Burnett laughs. "For nine or 10 hours a day on 'Survivor,' it's pitch-black in the jungle." That leaves little else to do but scheme and catch some shuteye. "But on 'The Apprentice' at 2 or 3 in the morning, they're still making photocopies. They get two or three hours of sleep. They're frazzled!"
By some measures, the instant success of "Survivor" a decade ago helped trigger the stampede of reality shows that came after. But Burnett has always preferred the term "unscripted" for what he does, tactfully but firmly separating himself from other reality shows he doesn't bother to itemize. His shows must be family friendly, says Burnett, whose own family life centres on actress Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel"), whom he wed three years ago.
Ahead in November from Burnett on TLC: "Sarah Palin's Alaska," a sort of travelogue conducted by the state's most famous family.
"I said, 'Hey, Sarah, do you want to do a show about Alaska through your eyes — the eyes of you and your family?'" He describes it as "a really nonpolitical show, a show about Alaskan adventure.
"You will not see me making salacious programming," Burnett says flatly, summing up. "Clearly, there are millions of people who are watching certain shows. But that doesn't mean you have to jump in and make that stuff. It's a personal choice, and it's not for me."
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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org