The latest episode of The Apprentice was like a balloon – a rather dismal, colourless balloon - slowly and steadily being blown up, and then being let down very quickly, without even a pop or a bang.
Much of the promise presented in the first episode – the promise of sterner firings, of some smarter candidates, of a greater focus on long-term potential as opposed to creating a gripping TV show – evaporated with alarming pace.
That's not to say it didn't make for compelling viewing, because The Apprentice – if you have even the slightest interest in business and/or reality television – always does. In fact, this could have been a great (an “Apprentice” great) episode. But much like Star Wars' controversial film 'The Last Jedi', the final scenes could have made or broken the episode. And they arguably did the latter.
But let us start at the beginning. Task two was nothing as exciting as task one's mad dash around Malta, but nothing more complicated, either. The boys team and the girls team – which have no official names this year, a delightful alteration that saved precious minutes during the first episode – each had to come up with and pitch a comic book for eight to 12 year olds: complete with concept, design and story. Which sounds simple enough, but the bright business brains of The Apprentice always find a way to turn the most straightforward job into an arduous battle. It could be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, but to put it frankly, the bright ideas were few and far between.
Frank Brooks, 27, who featured little in the opening episode and whose audition tape was uninspiring, was adamant that he should be Project Manager for this task. His louder volume and animated intensity – saying this was what he did as a career – won him the position over David Alden. The bespectacled 32-year-old came across as rather pleasant (in a boring kind of way), but certainly not the sort of character that would hold up in such a long and stressful process. Alden, who claimed fiction writing was his hobby, was pushed aside all too easily, and his soft warnings that Brooks' concept of an outer space-themed comic had been done time and time again fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately for Alden, his writing didn't live up to expectations, either, and had him in trouble later in the episode.
This is not to say that Alden was the only male to flop miserably during this task, because the vast majority either humiliated themselves or had nothing worthwhile to say or contribute. 'Aspiring actor' Kurran Poori, supposedly creative, was a wooden and incapable when it came to recording for the augmented reality cover, leading me to further suspect that the 22-year-old is mainly there for the future non-business opportunities that the show could offer him. Brooks himself displayed poor management throughout, and became the first candidate in Apprentice history to split their trousers due to a needless fancy dress mess-about that the sub-team pretended was necessary for the task (it wasn't.) Even Rick Monk, 34, who gave a good account of himself in the opening stages of the show and still looks promising, stumbled and stuttered when pitching.
In fact, the only successful pitcher for the guys during this task was Kayode Demali. The 26-year-old put himself forward as Project Manager last week and was self-congratulatory to cringing point after the win. But whether or not he is a likely winner long-term, Demali came across well here. He seemed engaged, knew where he should be and where he wanted to be, and brought an essential enthusiasm to the pitch he was allowed to attend that was sorely lacking elsewhere. He seems a bit too immature at present, but it's hard not to smile at him.
Thanks to the lack of originality, the bland content and the pitching blunders (featuring Alden sharing a very clear list of negatives from the market research), the boys found themselves on the losing end of this task – but once again, it came down to which of two bad teams was the worst. In contrast to last week, the girls have Canadian candidate Jackie Fast to thank for this week's victory, after her pitch to the larger retailer sealed them an order of 10,000 comics.
In the real world, no W.H. Smith would be buying any of the girls' erratic magazines. Their colourful main 'character' (a circle with sunglasses and rainbow hair) on the cover coupled with the rap that Camilla Ainsworth's sub-team recorded were the only credible parts of the product. The book was supposed to be educational and teach French (because eight to 12 year old kids buy comics to further their education, obviously), yet was flooded with grammatical errors and featured only a handful of foreign words.
These were issues that Sabrina Stocker – a young-voiced 22-year-old who steered clear of conflict in Malta – mentioned to Project Manager Khadija Kalifa, 27, prior to the flaws being pointed out time and again during the pitches. Kalifa, however, batted them off in the dictatorial and semi-rude fashion in which she managed the team for the entirety of the task.
Kalifa put herself forward for Project Manager after a number of others, including Stocker, were only willing to offer their services as a sub-team leader (which had never been a thing until this week.) The 27-year-old mother of two did not profess to be creative, and said she put herself forward because "the others were all too weak to put themselves forward".
And whether you liked it or not, Kalifa's approach was a brave one. She ran a tight ship, her word was the final and only word, and nobody was allowed to do anything she had not commanded. The Lincolnshire lady was branded as 'condescending' – mainly by Stocker, as the others were clearly treading cautiously to avoid the firing line – and she certainly sailed close to the wind, which she later vowed to learn from.
It was risky. Should the team have lost, it would have been all to easy to fire Kalifa on the basis that she made all the decisions and 'managed poorly'. Nevertheless, the team won. And while Fast's pitch ultimately netted them victory, Kalifa's dictatorship ensured that no arguments and/or drama got in the way of jobs getting done. One of The Apprentice features that annoys me the most is the over the top celebrations post-task – especially after a virtual default win – but Kalifa's tears definitely betrayed the pressure she'd felt. Maybe she suffered a mind blank, and that was why she didn't know who Kim Jong Un was.
Back to the boys – who swapped places with the girls to become the more terrible of two terrible teams. Brooks made the correct decision to bring Poori – who didn't even come close to living up to his big words – and Alden into the final boardroom, but Lord Sugar did not make the decision to fire all three. Unsurprisingly – if we're looking at last season, and not the last episode – Alden got the boot for a 'lack of business acumen', but Brooks and Poori were let off because of it being 'early in the process'.
It wasn't quite as much of a let-down as when Sugar doubled the investment in last year's final, but it came close. The big man branded Brooks as 'a diabolical Project Manager'. The last time I remember Alan Sugar using that term was to Karthik Nagesan in 2016, several seconds before Nagesan made Apprentice history by becoming the first candidate to be fired ahead of the final boardroom meeting.
The most irritating thing is that, had this been later in the process, both Brooks and Poori would undoubtedly have been sent packing. But Lord Sugar has not kept them in to give them a chance to prove themselves. Brooks' emotions on the brink of elimination kept him in the process, while Poori seemed to drift through the whole episode with the nonchalant air of one who believes their place on the show is secure.
Rather, Sugar has kept the pair in because, looking at this as a TV show rather than a process, it was too early to bring in the triple firing. This was only done for the first time a few years ago, and in the few times this wonderful event has occurred, it has always been at least a couple more weeks into the process. To unleash a triple firing in Week Two would destroy any building tension. The excitement would die down, and the rising action would be stalled mere weeks into the competition.
And so Lord Sugar, who made a daring decision in Week One, could not consolidate in Week Two. His decision make perfect sense when looked at from the right angle, but it is hardly satisfactory.
It's doughnut-making time next Wednesday. In the meantime, raise your glass to six more weeks of dead weight...
In this week's Added Note, it appears to me that candidates such as Camilla Ainsworth, 22, and Sian Gabbidon, 25, are highly familiar with the show and know exactly how to play the game. Ainsworth, particularly, looks a dark horse to go deep. Thoughts?