As the dust settles on another series of people with bloated opinions of themselves demonstrating beyond any doubt that most of them wouldn’t be worthy of being hired for a Saturday job behind the sweet counter in the local newsagent’s shop let alone being selected to set up a joint company with Lord Sugar, it’s time to have another look at The Apprentice and measure its highs and lows. Among the various questions I’ll be asking there’s one which is quite simple to answer so I’ll get it out of the way first, namely, is the series still excellent entertainment? Easy one – yes. The show continues to hit the spot because it’s still impossible not to loathe these disgraceful and vile little capitalists who sum up just about everything wrong with the business world. Watching them flounder and get fired by the pitiless Sugar as they expose themselves as being idiots rather than the cold, ruthless entrepreneurial machines they would have us believe never ceases to be absorbing and gratifying in equal measure.
Does the show work any better though as a business programme designed as a competition among an elite band of young on-the-up people to inspire others? In my original review earlier in the series (which you can read here) I was of the opinion that it didn’t work on this level as the contestants were usually revealed to be not very inspiring and the lessons learned from the tasks not relevant to real life, with Sugar often rewarding teams with victory who produced awful products just so long as they took the most money in one day, even if was obvious that the other team had a better product that would ultimately have done better in the long-term of the real world. Sadly, in this series it all seems to have got a little more detached from reality. With the ultimate aim of the series changing from gaining employment with Sugar to going into partnership with him it meant that the previous eleven weeks of tasks before the final essentially counted for nothing. It was all about the business plan they handed in to Sugar, a business plan which they had already produced before the series even began. So, while the eleven weeks of tasks provided the usual thrills of gaping at people’s stupidity and some genuine punch-the-air moments as particularly nasty pieces of work got the boot, it ultimately didn’t mean anything which is why we ended up with the situation where perhaps the most perfectly organised and level-headed candidate the series has ever seen, in the shape of Helen who scored ten victories out of eleven, ended up losing to someone who seemed to be nearly always on the losing team. And quite rightly so.
While the new format of the series makes even further nonsense of any claims of it being an examination of the candidates’ skills (those weekly tasks were obviously just there for entertainment and the candidates may as well have handed in their business plans during week one to decide the winner) it was actually the most heart-warming moment the series has ever produced when the geeky but thoroughly nice Tom was told that he had won. Tom had floundered throughout the series but in the end his likeability and the fact that in the past he had invented a genuinely great product won the day for him. Under the old rules the automaton that was Helen, who wasn’t exactly a bad person compared to most candidates but who even confessed herself that she had no social life outside of work and no desire to even have one, would have won easily. Under the new rules the weekly tasks may have become irrelevant but at least someone with an idea won because they had an idea and not because they promised to ruthlessly destroy all opposition to Sugar in the global marketplace.
Tom’s win was a win for humanity and, despite my denouncement of all the candidates a few months ago, there are normally a few decent (or, at least, less hateful) individuals who sneak through the process each year but who get chewed up and spat out by the ogres around them and then shouted at by Sugar that there’s no room for niceties in the world of business before being fired. However, by changing the rules this year, it opened the door for a genuinely lovely bloke like Tom to win because, when it comes down to it, the ruthless, heartless androids who normally do well in the series usually have no ability to actually think or create – it’s outside of their programming – and Helen’s idea for a business ended up being laughably bad. Tom showed the ability to think and create. You could almost see Sugar amazing himself that he had let an actual human being win this year but it was such a relief to see a guy who never bad-mouthed his fellow contestants once win through. While others in the boardroom facing the sack tried to fight their way out with a mixture of bullshit and hot air (hot bull or airshit, whichever you prefer), promising to give 110%, 200%, a million per cent, or just say and do anything at all to avoid being fired while blasting all those around them, Tom would always meekly accept every criticism thrown at him by Sugar and nod his head while taking it on the chin. He even put his hand up to speak every time there was a discussion with his fellow candidates on tasks and would keep it up until he got a chance to speak. Good god, manners from an Apprentice candidate. They’ll have pigs reciting Keats’ love poems on stage next.
And so to that final, different this year from all six previous series in that it wasn’t a final two posed with a really big concept-task helped by a motley assembly of returning failures who had been fired earlier in the series. This year, the gruelling interview stage (normally the penultimate edition of the show) was reserved for last, but instead of it being merely an analysis of the guff they’ve written on their CVs followed by a verbal evisceration of everything they stand for, as even they themselves finally realise that they are talking buzzword bollocks just as Sugar’s attack dogs rip their teeth into them and laugh in their faces, this year we got to see their business plans shredded before their eyes. And then the pieces of shredded paper gathered up and set fire to. And then the piles of ash scattered to the four corners of the earth. And it’s at this point that you realise that even the four finalists, who are supposed to be the cream of the crop, are a clueless bunch who all deserve to be shown the door with the final cancelled and the competition declared null and void.
As Sugar sat in the boardroom and read through the four plans before him he must have been scrabbling frantically through a fifth document – the one containing his BBC contract and stipulating that he had to stump up a quarter of a million pounds to one of the bozos with the lamest of ideas in front of him. Can anyone really imagine Sugar deciding that after all these years in high-powered business he wanted to become a partner in a company which sorted out dentist appointments for people too busy to do it themselves? Helen thought that he might and staked her whole business future on it. As one of the interviewers pointed out, it would take just as much time, if not longer, to phone her up and explain it and get her to do it as it would for him to do it himself. Lunacy. Then there was Tom who, despite being a worthy winner of the series compared to those around him, decided to invent a chair, which he admitted that he hadn’t actually made yet. Or costed. Or pretty much done anything much to do with it. And all his figures added up wrong. Lunacy. And then there was Jim who was going for some sort of e-learning project for schools but was finally forced to admit that he hadn’t done any kind of research on the project at all. Lunacy. And, finally, there was Susie, never the brightest in the weekly tasks (she was the dolt who famously asked in the Parisian task “Do French people like their children?”), who managed to extrapolate from selling some home-made perfumes at weekend markets that if she scaled that up to a national level she would have a £4.5m turnover in Year One with £1m profits. You might as well say that you sold a DVD once on eBay for a 50p profit so, if you went and bought two million DVDs, you could make a million pounds profit. She was rightly torn to pieces and it was revealed that she didn’t even have any idea of the actual legalities of selling cosmetics with regards to testing and had woefully underestimated the cost of this in her proposal. Lunacy.
What you’re left wondering after all this is how four contestants who were in a competition to come up with a business plan to draw a quarter of a million pounds out of Sugar’s wallet and who knew that their plans would be subjected to microscopic scrutiny couldn’t even be bothered conducting one single, solitary piece of market research or costing exercises between them. It beggars belief. In the end, Sugar did the only thing he could do and awarded the prize to the one person who at least had proven that he could come up with great ideas in the past before quickly telling him to dump his new ideas about chairs and go back to working on curved nail files, where he had success previously. So even the winning business plan got instantly binned, which says it all really. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the four least despicable candidates made their way to this year’s final. The inclusion of Melody and Natasha in the final six put this very much in danger at one stage but these two scheming harridans ultimately failed to hide their own patent lack of ability, sense or decency to those around them and were thankfully dispatched.
While it was pleasing to see the charming and gracious Tom win there’s little doubt that this year’s star was Jim. From the moment he cowed Leon into changing his mind about nominating him for the boardroom in the second episode he seemed to connect with the viewers and he even managed to repeat the trick without speaking when the vainglorious Vincent was incapable of bringing him into the boardroom despite the fact it was obvious that he should, despite the fact that the other candidates and Sugar were telling him he was a wimp who was in Jim’s pocket if he didn’t, and despite the fact that it was very clear indeed that he himself would be sacked if he didn’t bring Jim in. While there’s little doubt that Jim was probably one of the most buzzword-heavy and cliché-ridden candidates ever to step into the series he gets away with it in my opinion by being genuinely charismatic and by actually having more common sense than most behind his bluster. It was an odd sight indeed to see the Sugar Stormtroopers that are his four interviewers struggle to pin him down on almost anything they asked him. I’ve seen candidate after candidate, year after year wilt under the first question from these savage and brutal assassins and yet Jim just kept coming back at them time and time again, talking his way out of trouble like a boxer dancing around the ring. At one point I even thought he was going to survive them and emerge unscathed but in the end it was the sheer weight of their attacks, the sheer number of arrows they fired in his direction that broke through the defences and pinned him bleeding to the ground. It was almost with a sense of regret that they finally breached his barricades and over-run him and you can almost imagine that they saluted his back as he limped out through the door.
I said in my first review that I don’t watch the follow-up programme where each fired contestant is interviewed as I don’t like to see people who have been stupendously unpleasant in the series get a chance to laugh it up with the audience and put their own spin on things. I always make an exception for the final though and this year, despite the appearance of Michael McIntyre on the panel (a blow I felt it would be almost impossible for the show to overcome) it was well worth watching with an excellent little montage of Jim’s finest moments of mind control over the other candidates and members of the public being the particular highlight. What it did really enforce though was that Tom is that most unusual and unique of all Apprentice candidates – a thoroughly splendid chap. He emerged smiling from the process with his dignity and honour intact, never debasing himself by pointing out the faults of others and elevating himself by calmly accepting their belittlement. I’m not sure if he has it in him to make a successful business with Sugar but, unlike most of the others who are plainly unemployable agitators, I’d certainly employ him if I had the opportunity, just because he seems like a nice person. And his win is incredibly refreshing to see on this series. I wish him well.