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Apprentice in Wonderland Raises Questions It Never Really Answers

In his book about NBC's reality TV sensation, Variety editor Ramin Setoodeh reaches a fairly banal conclusion about the rise of Donald Trump.
  • Left: Donald Trump in The Apprentice (Photo: Everett Collection); Right: Cover of Apprentice in Wonderland: How Donald Trump and Mark Burnett Took America Through the Looking Glass (Image: HarperCollins)
    Left: Donald Trump in The Apprentice (Photo: Everett Collection); Right: Cover of Apprentice in Wonderland: How Donald Trump and Mark Burnett Took America Through the Looking Glass (Image: HarperCollins)

    I like to tell myself that I did everything I could to prevent the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him. I argued passionately with the people I knew who did. I donated money to his opponents. I protested against his policies. I wrote newspaper stories about the damage he was doing to America.

    And yet… 20 years ago, back in the mid-aughts, I watched his TV show The Apprentice. I didn’t do this accidentally. I tuned in every week. I was a fan. It was a grim and depressing time in my life, and watching the antics of the contestants — known as “candidates” — as they bumbled through a series of ridiculous business-related tasks in the hopes of impressing a New York real estate billionaire named Donald Trump who would, in the end, offer one of them a job, brought me a great deal of joy. (Seriously: what kind of game show prize is a job?)

    And so, according to Ramin Setoodeh, the author of the much-hyped new book Apprentice in Wonderland: How Donald Trump and Mark Burnett Took America Through the Looking Glass, I was complicit in raising the public profile of Donald Trump and turning him into a celebrity who would eventually become powerful enough to hijack the Republican Party and get himself elected President.

    I admit, the thought had occurred to me. It was a more plausible explanation for what had happened than a rip in the space-time continuum caused by the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series the week before Election Day. In his book, Setoodeh, a co-editor in chief of Variety, attempts to track how all this happened.

    There was an actual person named Donald Trump. He owned a number of buildings in New York City — including Trump Tower, where most of the drama on The Apprentice played out — and properties elsewhere and had written a book (with help) called The Art of the Deal that shared his secrets of business success. He had also gone through an embarrassing tabloid divorce and lost a great deal of money in bad business deals; he no longer actually owned many of the buildings that had his name on them. Nonetheless, he continued to maintain his image of a 1980s billionaire with oversized suits, a presumed diet of caviar and Champagne, and gold-plated everything. He was about as believable as Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly.

    That was, I thought, the great joke of The Apprentice, and the main reason I started watching. I continued watching because it was great TV. It was beautifully shot and edited, there was plenty of drama, and everyone, including Trump, committed to the bit. Trump, with a lot of help from the editors, was good at playing a billionaire, but who could take him seriously as a legitimate businessperson? Didn’t filming a TV show take time away from … business?

    Setoodeh doesn’t answer this question. Instead he organizes the book around a series of audiences he had with Trump between 2021 and 2023. To call them “interviews” would be a stretch, because Trump responds to all inquiries with his now-familiar stream-of-consciousness mix of self-aggrandizement and outright lies, and Setoodeh fails to challenge him. Instead, the two watch old YouTube clips of the show together and Trump reminisces, like Grandpa recounting his years in the war. “Trump is happiest when he talks about The Apprentice,” Setoodeh writes, “and crankiest when he relives his years as the commander in chief.”

    The other main character in the subtitle, Mark Burnett, was the executive producer of The Apprentice and, probably, the evil genius responsible for the show’s greatness. I say “probably” because Setoodeh never gets to interview him. Instead, Burnett shakes him down for tickets to a Sundance afterparty and then disappears. (This event takes up a large part of chapter three; Setoodeh includes a bitmoji Burnett sent of himself dancing and saying “Let’s Party!” which definitely makes up for any insights Burnett may have offered.)

    Apprentice in Wonderland is liberally padded out with filler like this. There are some interviews with former contestants, some of whom now hate Trump and some of whom remain loyal Trump voters. There’s a little dirt about various sexist and racist comments that Trump may have made — the sexist ones, at least, are brushed off by the female candidates, including the one Trump kissed — and a possible confession of producer interference, which would have been a serious FCC violation, but Setoodeh never looks into this.

    Instead, he devotes an entire chapter to discussing the failed Martha Stewart-hosted season of The Apprentice, which is not only boring but has no bearing on the larger story (though it did introduce the world to a pre-Housewives Bethenny Frankel, who came in second). There are also several bizarre and unnecessary digs at then-CNN CEO Jeff Zucker’s marketing honcho (and girlfriend) who dares to speak up about Zucker’s marketing acumen during their interview, cutting into Setoodeh’s valuable time with Zucker. I guess I am happy, though, that Setoodeh gets to stay in the Goop suite of his hotel near Mar-a-Lago after the power in his room goes out? Upgrades are always nice.

    In the end, Setoodeh reaches the fairly banal conclusion that Americans “saw Trump as the leader he’d been in the boardroom — the ultimate straight shooter.” But why, when there was so much evidence to the contrary? Do we really believe everything we see on TV, even a show that reached its peak about a decade before Trump actually ran for President? (Setoodeh writes that Trump considered making a run in 2012 so he could go up against Barack Obama, but NBC decided to renew Celebrity Apprentice; the executives responsible ask for our thanks.) An essay that was published in Slate last month by Bill Pruitt, a former Apprentice producer recently freed from his NDA, does a much better, and more concise, job of answering these questions, even if Pruitt didn’t get an audience with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

    During the boring parts of Apprentice in Wonderland, I cued up the first season of The Apprentice, to see if it was as good as I remembered. At its best, reality TV exposes the gulf between the story the contestants tell about themselves and how they appear to everybody else. The Apprentice did this brilliantly and hilariously. Watch Sam Solovey brag about how he’s going to really impress “Mr. Trump” and then fall asleep on the job. Watch Omarosa Manigault Newman describe herself as the wise voice of reason in the confessional segments while, in the main action, she’s a manipulative agent of chaos. We can see through them. Why couldn’t viewers do the same for Trump himself?

    We’ve spent 30 years now watching reality TV. Has it taught us nothing?

    Aimee Levitt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. 

    TOPICS: Donald Trump, NBC, The Apprentice, Bethenny Frankel, Mark Burnett, Omarosa Manigault, Ramin Setoodeh, Reality TV