Any hopes that the recession might have made Donald Trump a kinder, gentler taskmaster on The Apprentice vanish in the first moments of the show's infamous boardroom confrontation tonight — when he accuses one contestant of condescending to another because the guy is jobless and struggling to support five kids.
"You used the word 'compassion,' " chimed in daughter Ivanka Trump, pronouncing the word like one might tiptoe around a four-letter vulgarism. "But it sounded more like pity."
Welcome to the new Apprentice, where the worst economic crash in recent history is mostly fodder for the wealthy mogul to pit stressed-out victims of the downturn against each other, in a bizarre, business-themed gladiator match offering a high-powered job to the last person standing.
Well aware of how Trump's typical largesse might look in a country nearing double-digit unemployment rates, NBC has positioned its first noncelebrity Apprentice in two years as a lifeline to floundering business-types cast aside in the recession.
That means each of this year's contestants has a tale of economic woe to accompany the usual boastful posturing. Job One for these Type-A hustlers: work hard to convince Trump — and themselves — that they had nothing to do with the desperate circumstances in which they have landed.
Local fans have some skin in this game, thanks to former real estate portfolio manager Anand Vasudev, a New Port Ritchey-raised graduate of Berkeley Preparatory School who was let go from St. Petersburg's Echelon LLC last year. (Company officials have declined to comment on the show or Vasudev.)
We don't see much of Vasudev in tonight's two-hour premiere, which is usually a good sign early on. Instead, the group of 16 participants is divided by gender and told to design a modern office space in SoHo in just a few days' time, offering lots of opportunities to trash their fellow players and commiserate about lost opportunities.
"I used to make a six-figure salary," Vasudev tells the camera in one such aside. "Now I'm making no income and living with roommates."
Such desperation must sound like the ultimate nightmare to Trump, who swaggers through life as only a man born to great wealth can. Much as he tries sympathizing with his latest crop of competitors, he has little patience for failure outside his own, leaving contestants to prove their setbacks aren't simply evidence of personal shortcomings.
In this sense, not much has changed on The Apprentice, including Trump's inexplicable, ferret-sized, comb-over hairstyle. The formula is simple: an impossible task + backbiting contestants = lots of percolating squabbles culminating with an emotional ejection.
The task itself is Herculean. Trump's business involves building gaudy, opulent tributes to his own brand in buildings across America. So how can a team of eight neophytes on a budget build an office to impress the guy who slapped his name on the Trump Tower?
Vasudev plays the game intelligently for the early going, using his real estate background to help design his team's space, but not sticking out enough to get embroiled in the inevitable conflicts. The resolution of tonight's episode leaves the series' real question unanswered:
Are any of these hopefuls compelling enough to sustain an audience for a noncelebrity version of the show?
Because, if they aren't, frankly, everybody's going to get fired.