Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Jumping the shark


We've all heard the term 'jumping the shark'. It's generally used in TV circles whenever a well-loved show makes one too many attempts at refreshing its format, only to lose sight of the thing that made it great in the first place. Not everyone knows where the phrase originated - it was actually coined in honour of a scene in a season 5 episode of Happy Days, when Fonzie attempted to jump over a shark whilst waterskiing. 

What most people don't realise, however, is that this particular episode occurred halfway through the show's 11-year run. So although it represented a nadir for the writers, it in no way impacted the long-term popularity of the programme. Most people seem to assume that 'jumping the shark' is the tipping point when an audience begins switching off. But as Happy Days proved, viewers don't always recognise when the producers have stopped trying.

Pop cultural history aside, let's take a look at the Apprentice. Now in its eighth series, Lord Sugar's search for a business partner shows no signs of slowing down in the ratings. But it's hard to escape the feeling that its best days are, like for Sugar himself, far behind it. A few too many tweaks to the concept have left it feeling like a shadow of its former self. So let's take a look at the changes, and decide whether Lord Sugar is ready to strap on a leather jacket and some swim-shorts, and see if he can't clear a hungry hammerhead.

Cast changes

The departure of Margaret, to be replaced by Karren Brady, was the first sign that the main cast were starting to get bored with the format. Sure, Karren might work a fitted two-piece better than La Mountford ever could. But given that her formerly agreeable personality has changed to make her into a younger version of the formidable battleaxe, it serves to confirm the suspicion that everyone here has come straight from central casting. This may be a game show, but the move still smacks of Lucy Robinson being shipped off to New York, only to transform from a dumpy tween into a hot blonde underwear model.

Bullshit Bingo

Back in the early days, it was possible to watch The Apprentice and perceive the candidates as credible professionals. But as the editors have gradually exerted their influence over the show, it's become increasingly clear that the contestants are recruited for their unwitting comedic value, rather than their ability to turn a profit. Whether it's Azhar talking about his organic business start-up, or Stephen's goggle-eyed enthusiasm for meaningless brand names, the candidates are little more than figures of fun.

Pointless concept

Once upon a time, the purpose of the show was to help Lord Sugar recruit an impressive new employee to join his fading business empire. Unfortunately, after several years of miss-and-tell exclusives, it's become clear that the career prospects were as imaginary as Sugar's Canary Wharf-based headquarters. Apparently, most high-flying executives are looking for something a little more challenging than selling digital signage. So now, Sugar's looking for a business to invest £250,000 in. Aside from the fact that it renders his well-loved 'You're fired' catchphrase utterly meaningless, it does force us to question the logic of selecting a potential investment opportunity based on its inventor's ability to sell old radiator parts on Brick Lane.

Same-old, same-old

The advertising task. The bargain hunter task. The aggressive interview. Been there, done that, bought the overpriced, poorly-printed Union Jack t-shirt. Nowadays, Lord Sugar can't even be arsed to come up with a convoluted introduction to the tasks. On tonight's show, he just rocked up at their Bayswater mansion to interrupt their Wii tournament and told them all to fuck off to Edinburgh. Then again, I wouldn't have even bothered mentioning Edinburgh. 

Cliched characters

The brassy northern lass. The arrogant alpha male. And enough regional accents to curdle a carton of non-dairy creamer. Tonight, we enjoyed a double-dose of the latter, as Adam and Jenna honked and bleated their way through the street-food task, sounding like someone trying to play the paper and comb. When they weren't putting the finishing touches to their 'Gorrrrrrrmehhhhhhhh' offerings, they were making inane statements like "What if people come to the stand and speak Scottish to us, will you be able to understand what they're saying?" Still, they can't really be blamed for doing what the show expected of them. If you've seen The Cabin In The Woods, you'll know all about our love of archetypes when it comes to accessible characterisation. The Apprentice is becoming so formulaic that the official BBC website could just do away with its 'Meet The Candidates' page, and replace it with a grid of those generic blue and white Facebook silhouettes.

Foreshadowing

One thing we have to give The Apprentice credit for, is the way its production team manages to keep the results a secret. Eight years in, and I can't remember a single time when someone has leaked the results ahead of the broadcast. However, the show's not entirely spoiler-free. The editorial team's love of ironic foreshadowing is now so prevalent, that the outcome of the task can usually be determined twenty minutes in. The moment someone congratulates themselves on a job well done, before it's actually been done, you can be sure that those words will come back to haunt them. Tonight, it's was Stephen's turn, as he celebrated his own brilliance for securing an exclusive deal with a bus tour company: "That's a task-winner that is. High fives all round." From the get-go, they were as doomed to failure as the horror movie character who tells his girlfriend "I'll be right back."

The bags

Every week, the candidates all have to cart their luggage into Lord Sugar's holding pen, in case they're the ones to get the chop. But we're not stupid. Even Tarzan would struggle to force ten weeks' worth of outfits into a small carry-on bag. So why are we expected to believe that the these flashy business types have crammed enough business suits (and in Katie's case, a foam pizza costume) into their hand luggage?

Lord Sugar

With every passing year, Sugar becomes an increasingly inconsequential reminder of his own former glory. A couple of shit jokes ("£5.99 at a Herts match for meatballs. They don't pay that for a striker.") and some painfully poor grammar, is about all he can muster these days. And let's face it, if he no longer gives a solitary shit about the show, why should we?

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