Tuned In

Nighttime Martha: Too Real for Prime Time?

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So our long national crisis of uncertainty is over. We know what Martha Stewart’s Apprentice catchphrase is. "You just don’t fit in," she told the first ejectee, before writing him a "farewell letter"—presumably on stationery for which she felled and pulped the trees herself.

In most respects, Martha’s Apprentice is like Donald Trump’s: two teams choose  up names and compete in business-related challenges; one person from the losing team is dismissed. I don’t know if many people are going to want to see that twice a week: it would have been better to more radically redesign the show around Martha, or—if it were humanly possible to suppress Donald’s ego thus—to have the two of them switch off season by season.

But when Martha and her company get screen time, the show is different from Donald’s in an important way. Donald’s Apprentice is not about the business world as much as indulging our stereotypes of the business world: men and women in dark suits sitting in a paneled room, where a belligerent boss booms, "You’re fired!" Donald’s show is like his career, in which playing the over-the-top role of tycoon has always been as important as actually being a businessman.

But the business of Martha Stewart Omnimedia has always been about authenticity: real food, real furnishings, learning the authentic way to run an authentic American home. And her show better replicates the reality of business today, right down to the euphemisms. People are disciplined not in a forbidding "boardroom" but in an antiseptic "conference room." They are not "fired," they just "don’t fit in." Conflict is sidestepped, the passive tense is employed; it’s execution not by firing squad but by lethal injection. Martha has been telling the press she hates firing people, and in that she is like most American bosses—and yet people still manage to get fired, laid off, bought out, etc., every day.

I’ve written about the new, cuddly "daytime Martha" already, but she is gambling on our also accepting a different, more corporate nighttime Martha. To me, nighttime Martha is the more genuine, if less likable, of the two. But her vision of corporate life might be too real and recognizable for viewers to take. Reality TV is, after all, about not reality but entertainment. It could be that an authentic business-world Martha just won’t fit in.