The Apprentice Aotearoa has very little to say about the world of business, but that’s not the point of this instant classic of the reality genre, says Duncan Greive.
Despite what detractors would have you believe, it’s very common for reality TV to put humour of various stripes to the fore. The Great Kiwi Bake Off is beautifully whimsical. Dancing with the Stars had David Seymour twerking his way deep into the competition. The Bachelor franchise last year prominently featured a man eating a lemon.
Still, nothing has leaned so hard into comedy as the new, revived The Apprentice Aotearoa, which plays like mockumentary and appears content to contrast high stakes for the hapless competitors with very low stakes for the viewer. It’s almost entirely unintentional humour from the cast, but very deliberate in the edit – and in a subtle yet unmistakable way helps put paid to any critique of reviving the show post-Trump by feeling like a satire. Not just of the concept of The Apprentice, but of the idea that success in business is deserving of any kind of status whatsoever.
It commences with familiar flash, all helicopters and high rises, with Mike Pero on his gleaming motorbike, because did you know he used to race motorbikes? (I did not, but the show will never let me forget). Meeting the competitors, though, it’s clear how much time has passed since the last iteration, featuring future bankrupt Terry Serepisos giving advice.
Competitors then were much more earnestly in the conventional business mould, whereas these seem more from the influencer scene. This might largely be a result of framing, and is not to dismiss their ambitions – the influencer and creator sectors are as real as any form of business in the bizarro crypto-NFT-gamestonk 2021 economy. Still, it does give the competitors a much more telegenic quality. And, more to the point, makes them brilliant material for the show’s makers to work with.
The first episode tasks the two groups with creating a popcorn brand for kids, then pitching it to our main supermarket chains. It’s dominated by Michael, a real estate auctioneer who knows one phrase (“that’s a moot point”) but sadly not what it means. The edit is merciless, supercutting his repetition of it, then acidly returning to it during judging. Later, in answer to a question about what makes a popcorn brand premium, a hapless competitor replies that it “has a premiumness about it”.
The unreality is not confined to the contestants – Countdown orders 25,000-odd units of a product that a later scene reveals the contestants not having figured out a price for. But again, this is precisely the fun of the show, which is much less about business than about playing dress-ups with what business is imagined to be. A show about actual business – emails chased, repetitive tasks, raw terror, extreme pettiness – would be unwatchable.
So we have The Apprentice Aotearoa instead. In the Trump role is Mike Pero, who has an extraordinary record in business (it’s telling just how much house trading dominates our economy that both New Zealand’s lead execs have come from real estate) but is a very wooden host. His “you’re fired” has no conviction, perhaps because a realistic New Zealand approximation would be “you’re restructured” and be both interminable and profoundly sad.
His advisors are more fun. Cassie Roma is either mystified or on the verge of cracking up at the often hapless group she supervises, while Justin Tomlinson keeps a serious-as-a-morgue face while his even more hapless group machine gun their feet.
Episode two saw the groups take on fashion design and marketing, having been given a scant two days to come up with a summer robe to pitch to Ezibuy and Papinelle. This is clearly a very difficult task, but it’s inarguable that our groups made it more difficult still with their choices. The women made noises about inclusivity, then designed a robe so brief that only the very short could plausibly wear it around someone with whom they were not incredibly intimately involved.
Determined to maintain their losing record, their opponents in team Mana (“It embodies everything,” Michael says, “spirit, power, healthy masculinity”) created a fantastically expensive robe – for men. Tomlinson gave them huge props for their marketing strategy, which was something to do with men’s mental health. On this it really did seem to sum up the current business moment, in that beyond saying that they supported mental health there was nothing Mana said they would actually do.
The most crushing moment came when Ezibuy’s team asked which of the three pitchmen owned a summer robe. The answer was, of course, none of them – and a quick glance at Ezibuy’s website shows that not only is their $225 robe almost $100 more than the next priciest at the discount retailer, but that it stocks a grand total of zero robes for men anyway.
Unsurprisingly they lost again, and despite his puzzling claim to be able to “sell water to desert people”, team leader Bari was sent home.
That leaves the men, handsome but very bad at business, 0/2 to start the competition. But it’s the viewers who are the winners with this one, a deftly constructed and consistently funny throwback to the ’00s heyday of reality TV, which still captures absurdity of the current commerce as well as any show on TV right now.