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The Apprentice review: Alan Sugar’s groaning factory of capitalist delusion will outlive us all

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It is an act of cruelty for the BBC to re-launch The Apprentice within days of the new year. Here we are, drawing up lists of resolutions and embarking on life laundries, when in barges the country’s most stubbornly static TV programme, one as dedicated to same-ness as we are to annual betterment. Considering it’s been on for nearly 20 years and shows no signs of trying to evolve, it’s probably a lot smarter than we are. And if we’re being honest, Alan Sugar’s groaning factory of capitalist delusion will probably outlive us all, too.

The key to the show’s longevity remains its contestants, who run the gamut of “mortifying” to “not quite as mortifying”. The 16 entrepreneurs duking it out for Lord Sugar’s approval this year embody well-worn Apprentice types: the bolshy hun; the rugby lad; the harried mum; the wide-eyed eccentric. Standouts so far include financier Akeem, a petrified owl of a person whose brightest idea this week is a logo featuring a bizarre half-man, half-wave. It gets compared to everything from a rotten banana to human faeces. He must be protected at all costs.

There’s also shop owner Stephanie, who helpfully explains why she thinks a cruise ship emblem should be coloured blue (“Because it’s a colour associated with the sea”), and Nicki Minaj superfan Navid, a pharmacist whose anti-vax tweets had been unearthed before the series had even begun. Asked here why that aforementioned half-man logo is coloured like the contents of a toilet bowl, he too masters the art of pointing out the bleeding obvious: “So you know trees?” he asks a bemused marketing expert. “It’s brown, and then it’s green because of the leaves, and when it comes to healthy living and lifestyle, it’s all to do with greenery.”

The task at hand is to film an advert for a new line of cruise ships, with the episode ticking off a host of classic Apprentice tropes as it trundles along. Unnecessarily shouty conflict? Check! Green screen errors? Check! Eerily upbeat American comparing themselves to Steven Spielberg? Check! Besides the gentle if bland presence of series one winner Tim Campbell as one of Lord Sugar’s advisors – Claude Littner has had to sit this series out due to a bicycle accident – you’d be forgiven for wondering if this was a repeat from years ago.

But that’s also this show’s genius. You have to admire its eternal skill at finding budding moguls devoid of raw ability but overflowing with unearned hubris (“I’m so confident that some people think I’m deluded,” boasts a candidate nicknamed “The AK-47”). Likewise, the increasingly surreal Lord Sugar, whose signature gags have become as predictable (“In this boardroom you don’t get furloughed, you get fired!”) as they are confusing (“You sound like Donald Trump – he was also a very collaborative leader!”). No matter the state of the world, or however many genuinely monstrous people The Apprentice has foisted upon it over the years, there’s something undeniably cosy about its lack of growth. Why fix what’s always been broken?

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