OK, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that Donald Trump has been, ahem, “let go” by NBC. The Apprentice had become terribly boring, uninteresting, and genuinely offensive. It certainly didn’t help that the first two episodes were blatantly racist and homophobic … I mean, really, can Trump be expected to tolerate black men in either foppish suits or pink bathing suits? (Sidenote: Martin had some seriously awesome suits. For real. And he looked good…wtf?) Apparently he just can’t. If you saw the opening episodes, you know what I mean. If you didn’t, the folks at Television Without Pity have a nice summary.
I do think the opening episodes were just too gross for most television watchers. Remember that Trump couldn’t even touch Carey’s pink swimsuit with his hands. But it was something else, as well. That something else tells us at least a little bit about the limits of consumerism.
No matter how grotesque I find Trump and the walking blow-up doll called his girlfriend (or at least that’s how she always appeared on the show; she may in fact be human), the first season of The Apprentice was good television. I remember, in particular, the episode in which the “teams” were competing over turning a profit at a flea market. Set amount of fronted cash, then you figure out what to make and what to sell and what to charge. It made capitalism seem almost quaint. T-shirts. A flea market. Men in Armani X shirts and those lame ball caps, women the same but girl-version, sipping coffee and buying trinkets. You know the drill.
Things changed really fast, sadly. By last season, if not before, The Apprentice had fully indulged the spectacular character of late capitalism. With the phrase “spectacular character,” I mean just what Guy Debord had in mind in his Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord wanted to draw our attention to how we’d turned away from use and exchange value of objects and toward their fetish value. Fetish value: that value exceeding anything like what an object can be used for or the supply of said object. You know, like the strange and excessive value a brand symbol like Nike or Puma brings to a pair of shoes or jacket. For Debord, this was slowly becoming our primary – perhaps even exclusive – relationship to people, places, and things in the world. Written as a fairly programmatic, visionary book back in 1967, it reads today more like a mirror into which we’ve too often gazed than a warning.
That said, I’ve always thought that Debord overstates the case. For a lot of reasons. The cancellation of The Apprentice is just one example of those reasons: we can only stomach so much spectacle and actually need a break from it. We really do. Whatever the invasion of our lives by the spectacle – this fully developed “society” Debord describes – we remain material, physical creatures with old-fashioned limits. Trump hit that limit, I think.
I’m remembering the episode in season two or three (not sure), when contestants were asked to scheme for selling “Trump bottled water.” Now, bottled water politics and economics aside (Slate.com wrote it up nicely recently): come on – Trump water? That started this massive trend on the show toward marketing a product in the putative “competition.” You really wondered about the point of those episodes: marketing to the viewer or staging a contest? Were they stories or advertisements? Where was the distinction? Probably nowhere to be found.
So, it struck me as appropriate that this last season’s motif was the humiliation of the losers. If you lost the contest one week, you spent the next week sleeping in a tent outside mansion. Um, let’s ignore the beautiful view and all that and pretend that the mere presence of a tacky, gold-and-glass mansion next door makes the tent really, really embarrassing to inhabit. (Does Trump have the worst freakin’ taste in the world or what?)
Yes, this was an appropriate motif because I think viewers started to feel humiliated by the show. Every week, we were asked to watch commercials during the show (or, in one particularly icky doubling, a commercial about filming a commercial about a product). And somehow come to love the cult of The Donald – perfectly brought to a close when his kids were co-hosts.
Problem One: there is no cult of The Donald. That’s his fantasy. Problem two: there is a limit to the spectacle of capitalism, to consumer goods and all of those attendant desires. Just when you think there isn’t, you get The Apprentice. And you watch the televisual something that drew you there (plot? story? character? cuties?) fade and the fetish commodities emerge. Seriously. We were asked to watch a commercial of a filming of a commercial for a product that was constantly discussed in the commercial and the commercial of the commercial. I’m both bored and humiliated by this. Neither emotional states are conducive to tuning in.
In the end, I think this cancellation says, quite directly, “we don’t really like you, Donald.” That satisfies me. I like that. What satisfies me just a little bit more is the “we don’t really like that much of a spectacle, folks.” To be sure, The Donald had to push it pretty far to get this response. Let’s hope the scale slowly slides back to, well, something reasonable…post-spectacle, anyone? Hey, why not at least suggest such a thing is possible…