Picks and Pans Review: The Apprentice: Martha Stewart

updated 10/10/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NBC (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

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To say that something is a good thing is not to say that all is right as rain. Martha Stewart, post-prison, is making her way back with two shows, both problematic. The syndicated Martha is an enjoyable-enough daytime hour, a playful mix of studio audience, star guests and domestic tips (put nutmeg in the spinach). But her talent is the exquisite, meticulous gilding of small pleasures. A daily show on this Reality scale probably would benefit from something grander than her focused, measured energy. She's not a born performer. You wish she could just come out swinging like Oprah Winfrey.

Stewart's Apprentice is much more entertaining than Martha, if not in the way she or producer Mark Burnett intended. This duplicate of Donald Trump's Apprentice (now in its fourth season) is a showcase for Martha the businesswoman, a visionary who nudges along presumably zillions of projects in a calculatedly soothing corporate environment. (Good light, soft colors, tidy work stations—it's not an office, it's a biosphere.) But a reality show requires a performance too. Stewart lacks the eager ham of Trump, capitalism's William Shatner. She speaks with a hemmed-in flatness, even when raving over sushi: "That looks like fresh wasabi. It grows under running water, and it's so beautiful to go to a wasabi farm." Take me! Take me!

What made the premiere intriguing was the striking disconnect between Martha's composed and cool good taste and the contestants' idiotic squabbles. How can she stand these people? After Stewart dismissed the first contestant with an uncomfortable "You just don't fit in," she sat down and wrote him a farewell note. She read it in voice-over, sounding like an archangel graciously but firmly slamming Eden's gates behind Adam's retreating back. The suspense here won't be picking the winner—it'll be how soon Martha can rid paradise of these tacky interlopers.


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