NEW YORK -- With a new round of "The Apprentice" ready to go, Donald Trump is fired. Fired up, that is. Maybe even more fired up than usual.
His show - back for a second season at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC (WAGT-TV, Channel 26) - is even better than before, crows the billionaire businessman, who can afford to brag, especially since the first time around he saved NBC's bacon and made "You're fired!" a bankable catchphrase.
But though never one to shrink from the spotlight, Trump signed on for "The Apprentice" just to have a good time, he insists. The first edition's finale in April - when he hired Bill Rancic to oversee a Chicago construction project - drew more than 28 million people. "You can have a really good time when that happens," Trump told The Associated Press last week.
Besides, it doesn't cut into his schedule as much as you might think. "Frankly, the biggest time (demand) is when I have to fly to California to do a Jay Leno or something," he said. His show "is not scripted, there's nothing to study; it's something that we have down to a science."
"We" includes Mark Burnett, who created "Survivor" for CBS and then made lightning strike again with "The Apprentice."
Burnett, too, is fired up. He calls the initial three episodes of the 17-episode series, which was taped this summer, "the best work of my career."
Why so? "The 18 new players trying to get the job as 'The Apprentice' watched the first season," he explained, "and they came out with a vengeance, and did better, and thought differently, which made it very exciting."
Each vying for Trump's $250,000-a-year "dream job of a lifetime," the 18 candidates were chosen from 1 million applicants, said Trump, which, if strictly accurate, would mean one-third of 1 percent of everybody in the United States took a shot - or every attractive person slightly too old to audition for "American Idol."
In any case, that cloying cliche from Oscar telecasts - you're a winner just by being nominated - would seem to be true with "The Apprentice." Just to get on the show, with its guaranteed publicity and TV face-time, is to be an automatic winner.
Among them: Raj, a real estate developer from Philadelphia who affects a dandyish sartorial style likened by a rival to Rodney Dangerfield's in "Caddyshack," and Pamela, a San Francisco-based investment firm partner, whose searing look invites comparison to Cruella de Vil's.
In the premiere, teams are divided along gender lines, as in the original series, but with a notable switch: they both draft one member of the opposite sex.
After christening themselves the Mosaic and Apex corporations, the teams' first assignment is to create a toy, each of which, in prototype form, is put through its paces by a test group of kids. The toy deemed a winner qualifies its team to have dinner with Trump and his fiancee, Melania. The losing toy dooms its team to the boardroom, where Trump won't be playing around.
Even so, the secret of the show's appeal may not be the spectacle of someone hearing Trump say 'You're fired!' but, instead, that of everyone else getting spared. On its surface, "The Apprentice" tells the story of cut-throat business. But is there a deeper meaning?
"To me, the story is religious," said James B. Twitchell, who teaches advertising and popular culture at the University of Florida. "A story we all like is that of salvation and redemption through intercession. On 'The Apprentice,' Trump's novitiates come before him, hoping to be anointed.
"He's like the pope: He's the Donald!" said Twitchell, adding that Trump associates George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher, at each elbow in the boardroom, serve as his cardinals.
The story Trump tells in "The Apprentice" is just a new twist on the crowd-pleasing story he has crafted for the Trump brand throughout his career, according to Twitchell, whose books include "Adcult USA" and the just-published "Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld."
Trump is not so much famous for being a self-proclaimed billionaire, as he is famous for redefining what a billionaire might be like (and never mind pesky failures like his near-bankrupt casinos). He is the mogul as a brand-savvy celebrity, his name equally at home on bottled water or luxury high-rises.
And that is what Trump's would-be apprentices come seeking: his benediction on them as a similarly marketable brand. (Amen for Ereka Vetrini from the original version of "The Apprentice": Next Monday, she bows as the sidekick to Tony Danza on his syndicated talk show.)
With its return, "The Apprentice" reminds us that big business was never like this until Trump - at least in his own telling.
"There's never been a situation like this," he declared, "ever, in the history of show business."
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