Nothing on television reflects the state of American economic anxiety quite like the workplace competition show. When “The Apprentice” premiered in 2004, the economy was booming and the show played as a kind of capitalist gladiatorial match, a bracing dose of Donald Trump’s transparent greed and ego. As the economy soured and the ritualistic firing of average American Joes began to feel a bit too harsh, “Celebrity Apprentice” eased the collective conscience. Then the economic panic of 2009 brought us “Shark Tank”—also from producer Mark Burnett, the man behind both “The Apprentice” and “Survivor”—in which aspiring entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of investors, who, for the most part, mercilessly shoot them down.
“Be the Boss,” which premiered Sunday on A&E, sets out to be something different: a balm for economic anxiety instead of a kick to the groin for entrepreneurial dreamers. On “Be the Boss,” employees are plucked from their low-level sales jobs in obscure corners of a corporate empire—Auntie Anne’s, The Melting Pot, Molly Maid—told that their good work has been noted and that they are in line for a promotion, and then forced to fight for it. The premiere features a former swimsuit model named Ashley and a big, red-faced ex-Marine named Jason, both employees of Complete Nutrition. What Ashley and Jason don’t know is that the winner will actually be given his own franchise to run, and the loser won’t be a loser at all. (In the premiere, at least, the “loser” gets promoted to V.P. of brand development.) The “everybody wins” trick is one way to approach an environment of widespread unemployment and underemployment, but the result is a sense of drearily low stakes. It is “The Apprentice” turned fully on its head, a workplace competition show that pumps all its contestants full of gratitude for the generosity of the corporate powers-that-be.
“Be the Boss” comes from the creators of CBS’s “Undercover Boss,” and it shares its predecessor’s relentlessly feel-good spirit. That show—which premiered in 2010 and is now in the middle of its fourth season—features benevolent CEOs who descend deus ex machina to transform the lives of their employees. The boss spends some time trying to hack it on the assembly line or in the kitchen with his workers and then ultimately reveals himself, offering breezy fixes like paid vacation and cash bonuses. (Needless to say, no broader overhauling of the structure of worker benefits here.) Much praise is heaped on the boss by his staff, and vice versa. Tears are shed, mutual revelations are traded, and then everyone goes happily back to work.
It takes a vanilla show like “Undercover Boss” or “Be the Boss” to make you appreciate the way “The Apprentice” warps the workplace, with its dull routines and MBA lingo and spreadsheet tabulations of success, into something surreal and mildly terrifying. Of course, “The Apprentice,” which returns in March with an all-star celebrity edition for its thirteenth season, has always been less about the actual business world than Trump’s particular brutal worldview. It is “Survivor” brought to the boardroom, the office as a kind of wilderness in which corporate politics are as extreme and dire as a fight to the death. Like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” is a game of endurance and adversity more than an exercise in business savvy. “Manhattan is a tough place. This isle is the real junk. If you’re not careful it can chew you up and spit you out,” Trump said in the show’s first episode, as the camera cut to a homeless man on a bench. “It’s either the suite or the street,” he declared. Trump is always showing off his gilded penthouse to contestants, dangling all that garish prosperity like a carrot. The vision of success the show peddles is obscene and total: there is no in-between. It is a zero-sum-game of poverty and riches—and that is why it makes for good TV.
If shows like “The Apprentice” and “Shark Tank” advocate pluck and ingenuity, “Be the Boss” pushes a kind of identity effacement: the contestants are constantly being reminded not to stray too far off message, to rep the brand, to plug its products and stick to company talking points. The tasks competitors must perform are low-grade and straightforward. In the premiere, challenges include teaching a fitness class and setting up a pop-up vitamin store in a park. This may be the perfect test for running a franchise, but it makes for a pretty tedious spectacle. One competitor is reprimanded for forgetting to promote Complete Nutrition vitamin supplements during the class she teaches. It all requires minimal creativity and maximum conformity to the corporation’s ideas about itself.
As much as “The Apprentice” seems to be about contestants remaking themselves in the image of Donald Trump—after all, the prize is getting plugged into the machinery of his empire—Trump’s role is mostly to be an opulent icon, a caricature of the self-made man. Particularly in the show’s early years, before Birtherism and talk of a presidential run, when Trump was still a joke but a less noxious one, the very fact of his ridiculousness made “The Apprentice” feel like it contained within it a kind of self-critique. “Be The Boss” and “Undercover Boss,” for their part, do not want to be a critique of anything. Rather than a kind of absurdist theater of capitalism, they offer a queasy mix of company image-boosting and spiritual encouragement. They are a shoulder-squeeze from corporate in tough economic times. But in tough economic times, perhaps a reality check is what viewers need most.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.