Unless it fires Lord Sugar, The Apprentice is destined for the scrapheap

·4 min read
The Apprentice, series 16: Brittany, Sophie and Kathryn - Naked
The Apprentice, series 16: Brittany, Sophie and Kathryn - Naked

No, I can’t quite believe The Apprentice (BBC One) is still churning out the same old tut either. The besuited business contest returned to our screens last week with a launch episode inducing similar feelings of déjà vu to yet another day of lockdown. This second instalment was somehow even more formulaic. This was TV as repetitive as a Zoom meeting spent frantically gesticulating at colleagues to unmute themselves.

The yawningly familiar hour began with the remaining 15 shark-eyed hustlers summoned to London’s Eastman Dental Institute, where they were briefed by Lord Sugar in the form of a CGI tooth fairy. Don’t have nightmares, kids.

Their task was to design an electric toothbrush for children and an accompanying app. Naturally, the hopefuls proceeded to boast, bicker and back-stab for three solid days. The buck was passed around like a ticking bomb before a patsy was bundled into a taxi home. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they probably used to say at Amstrad’s now-defunct Parisian branch.

The boys’ team unwisely went for a magic wand theme. Still licking their wounds after last week’s cruise-line logo was criticised for “looking like a turd”, they now decided to make their toothbrush brown and log-like. They even called their mascot character “Whiffy the Wizard”. To accidentally fall down the loo once is unfortunate. To do so twice suggests they should be referred to a psychiatrist.

The girls’ “Brushing Star” space design was baby-ish and their app nonsensical but compared to their toilet-obsessed rivals' effort, it was a work of genius. “Team stands for Together Everyone Achieves More,” trilled project manager Francesca, like a human fortune cookie. Sugar quipped that the girls’ design came from Saturn, while the boys’ came from Uranus. See what he did there?

Sales pitches were painful to watch. When feedback arrived from buyers Bupa and Superdrug, the girls romped home with 11,000 orders. The boys got the sum total of, well, zero. Anyone would think children didn’t want to brush their teeth with a plastic toy turd. “I’m so bladdy disappointed,” barked the Baron of Clapton. “It’s a piece o’ rubbish.”

Members of the Boys' team have a classic taxi debrief during the second week of challenges - BBC
Members of the Boys' team have a classic taxi debrief during the second week of challenges - BBC

From the excruciating bungles to the boss’s belligerent reaction, it could have all come from any series over the past 17 years. Bar Sugar’s pre-scripted put-downs, which made a few token references to Covid - “I’ve got natural immunity to bulls--t”; “You don’t get furloughed, you get fired” - nothing has changed.

The show hasn’t so much moved with the times as rusted away in a railway siding with pigeons nesting in it and “Tottenham Hotspur Rules OK” graffiti sprayed on the side. This clapped-out format is looking more knackered than its 74-year-old figurehead. Forget “you’re fired”, Sugar should point his finger at the mirror and bark “you’re tired”.

The pandemic meant there was no series last year. Indeed, The Apprentice spent 25 months off our screens and nobody much missed it, apart perhaps from manufacturers of wheely suitcases. BBC bigwigs should have taken this as a sign. Either put it out of its misery or demand a major revamp to drag it into the 21st century. It did neither and might regret its dithering inaction.

Replacing Sugar with someone of non-pensionable age might have been a start. The tasks need to be radically reinvented, innovation encouraged, the candidates less identikit. Why not broaden the age range so it spans from teenagers to mid-lifers, as Bake Off manages so successfully? If the contest is serious about unearthing entrepreneurial talent, it needs to cast the net wider.

It could also cut to the chase much faster. Last week’s opener saw candidates hand in their business plans to Sugar’s faux-receptionist. They’ll now spend three months donning hairnets, selling trinkets and going through the menial motions until the interview round, when it all comes back to those proposals anyway.

Unless it forcibly reboots, The Apprentice can abandon the increasingly flimsy pretence that it’s a serious business contest. Instead it’s a constructed reality show, manipulatively produced and slickly edited to hit narrative beats and provide hiss-boo villains. It’s Towie with a LinkedIn profile or Selling Sunset: Foxtons Edition.

Ratings might be clinging on but creatively, The Apprentice is circling the drain. The boys’ unfortunate brown fixation is at risk of becoming a metaphor for the show itself.

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