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TELEVISION REVIEW

Martha's 'Apprentice' is fun but frosty

The last thing we learned about Martha Stewart, as she presided over her version of ''The Apprentice" on NBC last night, was the only thing we really needed to know: After she fires a candidate, she writes him a letter. Wishing him luck and safe travels. Signed, ''Cordially, Martha Stewart."

It's a nice touch, proof that the Martha we've come to know, the Martha cut from corporate steel, has survived any post-prison makeover attempts. Beneath that poncho, she's still the high priestess of put-together, polite and gracious, terminally distant.

Of course, you'd know that if you'd managed to catch a few minutes of ''Martha," the syndicated daytime talk show that debuted this month -- and is produced, like ''The Apprentice," by reality TV guru Mark Burnett. It's meant to be a happy romp with bizarro Martha. The opening credits feature Stewart vamping in a polka-dot bandana and cuddling with puppies.

But kibitzing, the lifeblood of daytime talk, is clearly not Stewart's thing. She barely strays from her trademark monotone, stumbles over names, treats guests like employees. On Tuesday's show, as an aging, telegenic black woman -- also named Martha Stewart -- slowly demonstrated her recipe for red velvet cake, WASP Martha could barely restrain herself from throwing ingredients into the mixer.

''The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" was a far better idea; like Donald Trump, Stewart understands how to personify a brand. And she seems far more comfortable in the world of rituals and musical cues.

Her ''Apprentice" will be different from Trump's, it's clear. He has a boardroom; she has a conference room and her own set of catchphrases, though they're generally disappointing. ''Somebody will be fired," delivered with the signature Trump hand-jab, inspires more fear than Stewart's halting ''One of you . . . will be asked . . . to go home."

But the chemistry is different, too. Trump is about noise and shamelessness and the triumph of ego over taste; his buildings are full of dark wood and absurd opulence. Stewart is about precision: Her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia offices are all clean lines, jute rugs, and frosted glass.

And most importantly, The Donald, beneath the bombast, is a softie. At one point last season, he hugged a sobbing candidate he'd fired. Martha doesn't seem the sympathetic type, though we can hope that her daughter Alexis, plucked as an adviser, will help her inject some humanity. (Stewart did let loose last night that she's ''waiting for grandchildren." Imagine the booties!)

Still, it's not all bad, it's clear, to be one of Martha's apprentices. For one, you get to live inside a Martha Stewart Living magazine spread, and for another, you're encouraged to be as obnoxious as possible, which has to be fun. It also doesn't seem particularly hard for these folks; Burnett, by now, is a master of casting for the perfect mix of articulate and annoying.

He's also a master of product placement, often at the expense of drama. Last night's challenge, to write a children's book, wasn't an ideal showcase. It's hard to capture the creative process on film, so the only action was the fights.

Compared to the candidates' sniping, Martha's cool demeanor was welcome. She offered a more cogent explanation for last night's firing than Trump probably has in three seasons. And if her morning show is any indication, there won't be any soft landings. ''Women in business don't cry, my dear," she says in the promo for next week's installment, and the delivery -- impeccably chilled -- makes you want to race into Donald Trump's comforting arms.

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