Monday, July 25, 2011

UK Apprentice Thoughts

I don't always agree with Alan Sugar's final hirings on the UK version of 'The Apprentice,' but this most recent series concluded in such a fashion that seemed to undermine the entire season. As opposed to hiring someone to work for him, this year Lord Sugar was looking for a business partner --- someone who had a business idea into which Sugar would invest $250K pounds.

Now, one could argue that even in a hiring situation, the Apprentice's tasks are an insufficient way to judge someone's worthiness of employment, given that they're made-for-TV trials meant to entertain the viewers, not necessarily weed out the best candidates. But this season, this new focus of the show made the tasks seem increasingly irrelevant, as shown by the final two. Lord Sugar's choice came down to Helen (an absurdly competent woman who won 10 of the 11 tasks, barely seemed to break a sweat in doing so, and unlike a lot of reality show contestants, actually seemed like a normal person) and Tom, an affable Clark Kent-ish sort of guy who lost almost all of the tasks and was constantly berated by Lord Sugar throughout the process for not being assertive whatsoever.

So, of course, Tom was the winner. The difference between the two was that Tom is a self-made inventor who already had experience in developing and selling products. Helen had made her mark as a CEO's executive assistant and had never started a business on her own in the past. This glaring gap in business-creating experience gave Tom the title despite the fact that, if you were going just by the show's results, this guy shouldn't have stood a chance in hell.

Lord Sugar admitted that had this series followed the others in being about just hiring someone to work for him, Helen would've won going away. In past seasons, though I haven't always agreed with who Sugar eventually hires, the winners have been from a wide variety of backgrounds and differing levels of experience, so there was no sense that the deck was stacked against anyone from the opening bell. This season, however, it becomes clear in hindsight that Tom (and Susan, another largely weak contestant who made the semi-finals) stayed around because their resumes fit what Sugar was looking for. As long as they weren't complete disasters, they would be there in the end, and in fact Tom won it all.

The finale left a bad taste in my mouth since it only occurred to me at the end that the rest of the season (which I enjoyed overall) was irrelevant. Given the new prize for the winner, the format should've been something different than the usual set of business-related tasks. For instance, it wasn't until the candidates were whittled down to the final four that we actually heard what their business proposals actually were, which seems unusual given that this was the entire thrust of the series. Shouldn't this have been covered in the very first episode?

Anyway, all of this aside, you should still watch the UK Apprentice since it is literally 100 percent better than the cartoonish Donald Trump version because....

* I don't believe for a minute that it's all on the up-and-up in terms of Sugar putting these through the paces to actually find an apprentice, but the show is shot and edited in a way that allows you buy into the conceit. As long as the show doesn't sell out its own premise (as I felt it sort of did this year), I'll happily watch and pretend that this is a legitimate job interview.

* The tasks are almost always interesting, and after watching a few seasons in a row, it's gotten to the point that I thoroughly look forward to classic assignment like "the teams have seven hours to purchase 10 items from around London, all of which have to be purchased at less than their market value." The first series of the Trump Apprentice was very popular with some of my friends from business school since that initial series actually taught some aspects of business, and while the Trump show went downhill quickly, the British series still seems to focus primarily on the different ways to succeed in the business world.

* It's all set in London! Immediate 10 cool points.

* The contestants, by and large, all at least have some slivers of intelligence to them. That is to say, there are no obviously terrible people brought to the show solely for entertainment purposes. Almost everyone gets a moment of brilliance that shows why they made the cut to be on the show in the first, yet conversely, the show pulls no punches in showing their screwups. The Trump Apprentice, for instance, usually makes it very clear early on in the process who is winning the show since they get the 'Jesus edit' over everyone else.

* And finally, Lord Sugar isn't Donald Trump. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

So even though this past season wasn't the UK Apprentice's best, I still heartily recommend the program. And, in future seasons, I won't openly spoil the final results. Sorry if you had plans to watch Series 7 and now want to kill me. Uh, spoiler alert?

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