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Television Review

‘Celebrity Apprentice’ attempts to make magic of the tragic

From left: Onetime teen idol David Cassidy, rapper Lil Jon, and country music singer John Rich are some of the new contestants on “The Celebrity Apprentice.’’ From left: Onetime teen idol David Cassidy, rapper Lil Jon, and country music singer John Rich are some of the new contestants on “The Celebrity Apprentice.’’ (Douglas Gorestein/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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Really, David Cassidy, former teen idol and TV star, has it come to this? And Marlee Matlin, Oscar winner, and Dionne Warwick, music legend. This?

It’s easy to see why reality-bred personas jump onto the junk train that is “Celebrity Apprentice,’’ such as NeNe Leakes from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta’’ and Richard Hatch from “Survivor’’ and jail. And you can understand why the show calls out to Gary Busey, who spends most of Sunday’s two-hour premiere, at 9 on Channel 7, preaching on a New York sidewalk in the guise of “the Pepperoni Profit’’ (misspelling intended by Busey). As the guy who suggests “Sperm Farmers’’ for the men’s team name, Busey is a punch line always looking for a joke.

But I find it sad to watch the likes of Matlin and Warwick submit to the indignities of Donald Trump’s contest, which always deteriorates into catfights and bruised show-biz egos. Is this where Justin Bieber is headed, once, like Cassidy, he can no longer make girls scream? As entertaining as the crazy can be, there’s an undercurrent of pathos in “Celebrity Apprentice,’’ hidden in the way these people bow to “Mr. Trump’’ and submit to the contrived challenges as if they’re in rehab cleaning toilets. I don’t mean to suggest that the show is moving in any way, but, as Warwick struggles to use a checkout machine and the cranky Jose Canseco threatens to hit Hatch, it’s a little pitiful.

The premiere finds the two teams running Manhattan pizza joints. The team that makes the most money — which comes down to which team members have more friends willing to pay thousands of dollars for a piece of pizza — wins the day. Naturally, the action quickly zeroes in on two personal battles, which start with flagrant eye-rolling and culminate in harsh public words. Cassidy and Hatch are instant enemies, either because Cassidy is lazy and stands smoking a cigar while the other men work or because Hatch is just annoying. Naturally, during the board room analysis, Cassidy and Hatch are seated next to each other. Match, meet firecracker.

And Star Jones and Lisa Rinna quickly tangle, with Rinna harboring little grudges until they break forth with a vengeance. Rinna to Jones, regarding Jones’s pizza fliers: “They’re great!’’ Rinna to us: “Useless.’’ When Rinna and Matlin are pushing through Manhattan traffic to deliver their pizzas on time, they form an unofficial Jones hate club. Of course Rinna and Jones, like Cassidy and Hatch, are conveniently positioned by each other during the post-analysis.

La Toya Jackson is mildly amusing, as she stays under the radar and struggles to remember the name of her team. Early on in the premiere, Trump explains that he was friendly with her brother Michael, who once lived in Trump Towers. I’m thinking that connection will serve as Jackson’s immunity icon for a few weeks, before she gets fired. That connection, after all, is why she was hired in the first place.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE CELEBRITY APPRENTICE

Starring: Marlee Matlin, David Cassidy, Richard Hatch, Mark McGrath, Dionne Warwick, Jose Canseco, Star Jones, La Toya Jackson, Meat Loaf, Gary Busey, Lisa Rinna, NeNe Leakes, Lil Jon, John Rich

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Sunday, 9-11