Photo courtesy NBC

Donald Trump, New York’s real estate king, is reality-television nirvana. With rock-star lips, a girlfriend who might have been ordered from a catalog, and hair that looks as if it was dropped on his head from a tree, he’s the embodiment of America’s lust for self-perpetuating fame and fortune. Someone should let the Queer Eye team loose in his absurdly ostentatious 52-room apartment. What would five gay peacocks say to one giant straight one? “Maybe you’re a little too concerned with appearances, Mr. Trump”?

The good news in the opening two episodes of The Apprentice (NBC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.) was that the contestants in producer Mark Burnett’s latest twist on Survivor are perfect reality-television material as well. Watching this troupe of predatory saps enter Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, millions of viewers must have been rubbing their hands with glee, not least the 200,000 who applied to be on the program and were rejected. New York chews people up and spits ’em out, we were told over a shot of a bum sleeping on a park bench, but so do shows like this one. Sixteen contestants (eight men, eight women) made the cut, but only one will survive to become the great man’s “apprentice,” with a $250,000 salary and — I’d guess — an 80-hour workweek and a horrible boss as well.

In the meantime, hope bubbles like a pure underground stream in the breasts of all 16, or rather 14, contestants. David, a doctor so dastardly he could kill you just by glancing in your direction, was the first to go. A major mistake, in my judgment. Here was an M.D. (and sinister Kissinger look-alike) who seemed certain to drug or even poison his rivals. Still, explaining his unusual decision to take an MBA after finishing med school, he did leave us with an immortal line: “In my senior year of medical school it was, like, what can I do with an M.D. beside treat patients?” Curing the sick — that’s for losers.

The contestants were divided into two teams, men versus women, and their first task was to come up with a title for their respective “corporations.” The girls, with legs on show, got out of the blocks first. A sexy Italian-American smile-machine named Ereka came up with “Protégé,” and it was perfect — femme, flattering, and a rhyme for Fabergé. Ereka was so chuffed by this verbal stroke of genius that she looked ready to take the prize money and retire to Florida on the spot.

The guys, who flunked Creative Writing, labored mightily to match Ereka’s innate lyric sense. Eight ambitious skulls produced one ugly word: VersaCorp. Then both teams moved on to task number two. With $250 as seed money, they had to set up a lemonade stand in a location of their choice. So we watched as the two teams (the girls in midtown, the guys downtown by Fulton Street) purchased their lemonade and cups and set up shop. At first, the men formed a relatively efficient unit. Their choice of location was uninspired, but they seemed to have an instinctive talent for planning and organization.

The women were initially less successful. Ereka, who was in charge, couldn’t decide what to do. (“You’re the project manager,” a colleague snapped. “Lead.”) Tammy, an Asian American who seems to have modeled herself on Katharine Parker, the corporate virago played by Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, complained that her feet hurt, something Parker would never have done. And some of their team members turned east instead of west and got lost in the shadowy canyons of midtown. (“Oh my God,” said one, looking at a street sign, “does that say Park Avenue?”) But in the end the fellows didn’t have a chance. Once the women figured out that, by flirting and offering a kiss with each cup, they could sell lemonade to every other man in Manhattan, the first round was effectively over.

In the second episode, both teams were given 48 hours to come up with an advertising campaign for a corporate airline company called Marquis Jets. The girls, who won the first round by flirting with strangers, won the second by being outrageous. Their ads, which featured cheekily phallic shots of a Marquis Jet with tag lines such as “Upward Bound” and “How do you measure up?,” got points for chutzpah if not for appropriateness. The men, in the meantime, produced a competent but fatally square campaign with a female voice-over telling us that, “as a wife,” she felt safer knowing her husband was flying with Marquis. It was time for someone else to get axed, and the men are now down to six players.

In a revealing scene near the end of the episode, one of the men tried to get a fellow team member (who was certain he’d be fired) to chill out. He told him to imagine he was in the country — mountains, sunsets, fly fishing, that kind of thing. A put-your-feet-up vision of the good life, in short. Unfortunately for the men, the women in The Apprentice aren’t wasting any time on daydreams. They just want to kick ass. Perhaps they opened a dictionary and discovered that the word apprentice is rooted in the Latin apprehendere, to seize. In any case, the day so far has been theirs.

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