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Jeff Simon: 'The Apprentice,' 'Billions' and other predictors of current events

Jeff Simon

It's all there on television. It has been all along but people don't want to believe it.

That's changing. The New York Post, of all American media, recently ran a front page depicting the current warring occupants of Trump's White House with one word "Survivor" – the name of the current grandfather of TV reality series.

Who could possibly deny that every new front page or hour of cable TV news these days is bringing us something that has an almost exact counterpart in the backstabbing and overwrought machinations of Reality TV?

It's all been there on television. But we Americans have so trained ourselves to minimize, underestimate and deplore television that we refuse to consider that it has long been the predictor of what has now become the daily agenda of American journalism.

I give you the following examples that pointed the way:

• "The Apprentice" (Especially "Celebrity Apprentice"): It turns out that studiously avoiding Donald Trump's reality TV show years ago was a grievous mistake. What we should have understood was the show's conception of Trump underlings as contestants – competitors required to flatter and manifest fear for the "boss" until the final decisive moment when he looks at the camera and says "You're fired." Washington news for the past six months has been a cavalcade of speculation of who might be fired and who (Sean Spicer, Rex Tillerson) might not be able to take it anymore. It's been the Washington version of "Celebrity Apprentice."

The original "Celebrity Apprentice" was certainly instructive. Those subject to being manipulated and pushed around were presumably "celebrities" – people America wants to believe are immune to disrespect. Instead, they were there to curry the favor of someone who, in his own world, might, at episode's end, send them to oblivion.

The televised moment when Trump's presidential cabinet and White House staffers pledged fealty to the boss was so analogous to an episode of "The Apprentice" that TV critics like the New Yorker's Pulitzer Prize winning Emily Nussbaum couldn't help noticing.

• "Billions": The Showtime show is a racy and bruising fantasy about a high-flying Wall Street Hedge Fund grandee and the U.S. Attorney who is out to get him, even if that means that his own maneuverings to do so are every bit as morally shaky as the billionaire Wall Street operator.

What has made "Billions" one of the great shows on current television is the self-consciously gaudy dialogue – the pure, undiluted testosterone concentrated at toxic levels that flows through so many scenes. The object of what we're listening to isn't really actual communication between people, it is either obscene and entertaining intimidation or self-protective braggadoccio or vicious accusation used as a weapon in and of itself.

Its sound was almost duplicated completely by new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci aka "Mooch" (his nickname) when he was captured on Thursday in an astonishing recorded phone call with the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. Lizza was never told that the rant was off the record or on deep background. Hence, it became almost instantly public property.

It wasn't merely profane, it was savagely dismissive of others who have occupied positions on Team Trump far longer than the new communications director. They included Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon (who was pinioned in conversation by "Mooch" with a particularly pungent obscene characterization).

At this point, it is crucial to remember that the Wall Street milieu of "Billions"was the exact milieu of "Mooch" before he was absorbed by the White House. He moved up from Goldman, Sachs to founding his own hedge fund feeder firm Skybridge Capital (assets listed at $12.5 billion). It's a world of mega-money and machismo where savage and gaudy talk may be the avocation that reveals what is actually happening in the competitions of one's vocation.

Showtime's "Billions' has, in effect, been telling us that "Mooch" was coming to the White House for a couple of seasons now. Now that he has been recorded word for word and syllable by syllable by the New Yorker, we can take a guess at how much is indicative sound and fury and how much signifies nothing.

Other, that is, than the macho insults of voices in love with their own machismo i.e. the billion-dollar equivalent of trash talk on a basketball court or football field.

• The ratings of MSNBC have been rising radically – especially the smartest Trump critic on current television, Rachel Maddow.

The irony of television news in the Trump era is that despite the contempt of the president and his cohorts for news as a profession, he has been good for it as a ratings and circulation draw in an otherwise beleaguered era.

As the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik has pointed out, the lowest end of New York journalism (tabloids, gossip columns) is where Trump's "celebrity" came from. They're what forged his understanding of "fake news" while it gave him little understanding of the idealistic motives of those in journalism's highest precincts. When you're moving up the ladder of fame alongside wrestling mogul Vince McMahon, you don't have time to think about the first rough draft of history.

Numbers – viewers, circulation, online clicks – are all that matters, even if noisy chaos wall to wall is what we're seeing daily.

I'm not a "Game of Thrones" watcher, unlike most TV audiences, it seems, these days.

Undoubtedly, there's a message about an America we'll be seeing any minute now embedded somewhere in an episode.

God help us all, though, when we find out what it is.


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