Greetings from the not-too-distant past. Being a columnist is a bit like being a custodian of time capsules. As I write this, the US presidential election has yet to happen. I’m not going to spend too much time attempting to predict the world’s reaction to the outcome because, as I sit here, it’s still anyone’s game, and those of you in the future know what’s going on better than I do back here in the Land of Last Week. Also, as the sci-fi novelist William Gibson recently remarked, “it’s inherently more difficult to imagine things getting relatively unfucked than it is to imagine things getting more fucked but in a familiar direction.” And that, my dear friends, is an appropriate enough observation concerning both politics and the new fall TV schedule.
The relationship between the White House and the boob tube is stronger than you may think. You know there’s a Republican in office, for example, when a relic from the eighties like Donald Trump can make enough of a mark on NBC that competing networks roll out the assholes to try and match him. I am referring to Fox’s spoof on The Apprentice, appropriately titled My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss. The premise of this show is similar to My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, in that the job (and the corporation that offers it) on the former is as much a sham as the marriage proposed on the latter. The idea here is to take a bunch of young entrepreneurs and abuse them while they compete to work for a total jerk. What they don’t know is that the job doesn’t exist and the jerk boss is actually just some jerk actor.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that the suits tend to be cretins, but when we’re putting people on TV to dance like monkeys with the promise of winning a phony career, I think there’s something wrong. It doesn’t take Diane Sawyer or Spider Jerusalem to figure out that being selected to appear on an untitled Fox reality show probably isn’t a very sweet deal. The justification for turning ambitious dimwits into emotional pinatas on My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss is that the contestants are terrific bastards: we love watching those who deserve it receive their comeuppance. The Apprentice is also designed that way. When Trump steps in and sees directly through someone’s transparent façade and gives him or her the axe, he does what we’d like to do. Who doesn’t want to see their own presumptuous workplace monster humiliated and given the boot? Take this TPS report and shove it.
Now, it’s not my intention to assassinate Trump’s character, but this is a man who has made a career out of building giant monuments to his penis. At least he did until he went bankrupt, but he recovered from financial disaster and that’s something to be lauded. Winning on The Apprentice means you get to work for him running some minor operation inside his penis, like Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask when he was a sperm paratrooper. Okay, that’s an extreme example. Most likely you’d be the person who gives the sperm paratroopers their yearly reviews, and sometimes you’d all go out together after scoring a big account and eat wings and guzzle Irish car bombs—your treat—and laugh ebulliently while telling Maureen in accounting that she’s fierce. That’s the bottom line.
Granted, the reason why Donald Trump can succeed on television is because my ideas for reality shows—Who Wants to Marry an Urban Planner?, The Rebel Sub-Rights Assistant and My Big Fat Obnoxious Student-Loan Bill—were all rejected. Rejected without even a curt reply.
With a job market slowly beginning to recover after some time down in the dumps, at least we can laugh at how ridiculous interviewing for a job has become. Or cry maybe. It used to be that you could work your way up to the top—like in Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and many other novels championing the rise from rags to riches by means of hard work and a savings account—but when I see people being pelted with paintballs by a pretend boss or fired by a twat with bad hair, I find it hard to laugh. It’s difficult enough knowing you’ll probably never receive a reply after responding to a posting on Monster or craigslist, but when an Ivy League education has contestants turning down a Jacuzzi bath with a fake boss, times are tough. Granted, the winner on Obnoxious Boss gets to walk away with a bunch of money and a possible stint on an upcoming season of The Surreal Life, so it ain’t all bad.
The one billionaire show that I hold out a handful of hope for is The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best. Sir Richard Branson is the founder and chairman of the Virgin group of companies, and on the show he will take sixteen young entrepreneurs on a risk-taking tour around the world as they compete for a job as the head of the Virgin Megastore chain. Of course, it looks ridiculous and little more than a vehicle for Branson to prove that he’s the “cool” Donald Trump, but at least the stakes are different here. The Rebel Billionaire holds the distinction of being billed not as a “reality show,” but as an “unscripted drama,” which is perhaps a more accurate description of the bastard reality-show medium. I worked at the Union Square Virgin Megastore in New York City for about four hours a number of years ago. It was miserable and—I’m not proud of myself for this—I told my manager that I was going to Blimpie’s for lunch and never came back. Not even to pick up my paycheque. Branson still owes me thirty bucks.
Anyway, Sir Richard Branson’s first major accomplishment was founding the Virgin Records label in the 1970s, which soon expanded into the Virgin Megastores. In the 1980s, he started Virgin Atlantic Airways and promoted it by pulling such stunts as flying a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. But the thing that really wins me over about Branson is his creation of Virgin Galactic in order to finance travel into outer space. He also helped sponsor the $10 million Ansari X Prize that SpaceShipOne won this past month—bringing us that much closer to the promises NASA couldn’t keep due to bureaucratic nonsense and politicians who think technology is only useful when it’s being used to kill people. (Or, in the case of the Mars initiative, to flee to another planet once the earth has been left a battered husk. If you want to hear more about that theory, just look for me stumbling up and down a city street dressed like a hobo and wielding a megaphone and placard written in crayon.) Anyway, turns out I can imagine things becoming unfucked just as easily as I can see them becoming fucked in a familiar direction. If you want to know the truth, though, I’d rather see Sir Richard Branson putting a bunch of hopeful kids through hoops than a jerk like Donald Trump abusing a reality show as if it were Levitra. I guess that’s why I myself rarely laugh while watching these programs. But that’s why they pay me the big bucks.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.