I think The Apprentice may have peaked a little early this year. I'm not convinced we're going to get a better mission statement than the one delivered in the opening episode: "We're going to run like hell to sell those ukuleles", a line that to me cries out to be set to music.
And since the format is beginning to show its age, it's really only the hope of similar verbal absurdities that keeps you going back week after week. The weary familiarity of the programme's storytelling – the almost liturgical way in which each episode is stitched together – raises another problem. We've seen these rituals so often – the taking of the telephone call, the pitch for retail orders, the doleful tramp to the Loser's Cafe – that there's not nearly enough juice left in them to distract you from the fibrous matter, and when you start thinking about that you start asking awkward questions.
Why are they always so surprised to get a call from Lord Sugar, for example, running around the house squealing in their pajamas as if the very last thing they could have imagined was being called on to perform in a reality-television show? More pointedly, when the "major retailers" that Lord Sugar is always boasting about laying on as potential customers make their bids for product, are they just spending imaginary money? One assumes that none of them are stupid enough to part with real cash for the half-baked monstrosities they're required to judge, but if that's the case, what's the point? Everyone knows you can't play poker for matchsticks. What makes it real is the risk of losing.
It may explain, anyway, how the men's team last night got a staggering order of 2,500 units for a rather clunky table/chair hybrid – their response to being challenged to come up with a new piece of flat-pack furniture. Either that or the buyers in question were still dazed by the abysmal quality of the opposition, a "multi-purpose" piece of furniture that the women had dubbed the Tidy-Sidy. It turned out to be a box on wheels, multi-purpose only in the sense that you could store things inside it or on top of the lid, though it did also perform the function of goading Lord Sugar into action in the board room.
There's always a moment, he told its rueful-looking inventors, when the prototype turns up and "you know – either this is a right lemon... or we're on the right lines here". And you're the man who signed off on the Amstrad E-mailer, you thought, a product so fragrantly citric you could have made lemon curd out of it. But humility is not Lord Sugar's strong point. He dubbed the Tidy-Sidy the "Wishy-Washy Poxy-Boxy" and fired the person least responsible for bringing it to market, because his gut had told him to. My gut is decreasingly inclined to watch The Apprentice, I find.
At least the apprentices aren't losing vast amounts of our money, unlike the self-regarding sacks of bombast at the heart of Bankers, which this week detailed some of the catastrophes that followed the debt crisis, in a period when you might think that prudence would have reasserted itself. In fact, such was the hubris of some of those who'd come through relatively unscathed or spotted an opportunity among the piles of financial carrion, that several of them did it all over again.
The qualities that The Apprentice encourages in its participants – win-at-all-costs competitiveness and wild over-estimation of their own talents – is precisely what delivered the financial crisis, only magnified a thousand times by the deregulation of the financial markets. And instead of the Poxy-Boxy we got nation states on the brink of bankruptcy. Still, some of the big bankers were so chastened they cut their bonuses to just $10m. Think of that.