It’s only been two years since the last series of The Apprentice graced our TV screens, in late 2019. For obvious reasons, it feels a hell of a lot longer. Alan Sugar acknowledged as much in the introduction to this season’s first episode. “We’ve been through some tough times,” he declared, with the platitudinous optimism of a government press conference. “Slowly, things are getting better. The country’s fighting back… British business is fighting back.” But where does that leave the show about business? During the week, Sugar was ridiculed on social media after sending a message to Graham Norton, asking to appear on his Friday night talk show to celebrate last week’s auspicious premiere of The Apprentice series 16. Twitter users – hardbitten cynics all – chose to interpret this offer as some sort of an obnoxious demand for publicity. Had the Amstrad mogul really fallen so far as to beg for a PR handout? Now, at the time of writing, the viewing figures for last week’s premiere haven’t been released. The very fact that people are questioning them attests to a mounting problem the show faces, however: the nation has stopped buying what The Apprentice is trying to flog.
Time was when The Apprentice was a bona fide fixture of the British TV calendar. When it first aired in 2005, spun off from the American series of the same name, the programme was something of a crossover hit, reeling in sceptics of reality TV. Abandoning the genre’s usual rosters of horny D-list celebrities, or attention-hungry 15-minutes-of-famers, this was a series foregrounding suited, booted young professionals. “It’s actually a very interesting study of human nature,” people would say. It was scratching much the same itch that would later be satisfied, for many, by Succession: just a cadre of a dozen-odd Roy siblings, sniping and backstabbing for the approval of one Logan Sugar. (Though thankfully we’ve been spared the sight of Lord Sugar micturating on the boardroom floor.) As the years went by, however, The Apprentice inevitably lost its novelty. The colour of the weekly tasks changed, but increasingly, it felt like each year brought the same oleaginous characters in different skins; the same fatuous bickering; the same pig-headed blunders. More than this, though: The Apprentice is grossly out of step with a world that is slowly losing its faith in the great capitalist myth.
At its core, The Apprentice is an aspirational show, a festishistic paean to the trappings of business culture. Bleary meeting rooms and sterile suit-jackets are filmed with all the lustful ardour of Federico Fellini shooting a woman’s breasts, or Quentin Tarantino a pair of feet. It presents an almost bafflingly credulous deification of business culture – or, more specifically, hustle culture, the kind of plucky, do-it-yourself gumption associated with working class social mobility (which is, as The Apprentice shows, often appropriated by people from considerable privilege). Despite all these professional credentials – the suits, the six-figure-start-up backstories, the pervasive, insufferable corporate jargon – the contestants are always framed, to some extent, as fools. “You could do better,” the show seems to scream, as one candidate fluffs a presentation, or insists upon a terrible product design. This was always part of its appeal. In 2022, however, with the majority of the country suffering under a hostile economy, the allure of The Apprentice seems like a perverse fantasy.
There’s another factor in all this that can’t be understated: the erstwhile host of the original Apprentice, former US president Donald Trump. For many, Trump’s very history with the brand is enough to sully it for good. But even for those who don’t directly connect the twice-impeached dynamo to the UK’s Sugar-coated spin-off, Trump’s rise to global prominence has dismantled the fallacy of the “deal-making hustler-magnate” before our very eyes. “President Deals” embodied many of the values that The Apprentice seems to idolise – most fundamentally, the ability to turn a buck – but also laid bare the limits of this ideology, its emptiness, its rank and cruel hypocrisies. Trump is capitalism’s gruesome symptom and raison d’etre.
It could well be that by week four or five none of this will matter. Perhaps everyone will flock back to BBC One in their droves. The boardroom drama could lure people back in, or one skin-crawlingly watchable contestant. But then again, maybe not. The Apprentice may never return to its thriving, talked-about heyday. Even the wiliest salesperson can only keep their foot wedged in the door for so long. “You’re fired?” Perhaps. But fired up, I’m not so sure.