Bill or Kwame to take reins as 'The Apprentice'

— If you asked Donald Trump the time, you could expect him to exaggerate it by several hours, then boast how his wrist watch is one of the greatest watches anywhere in the world.

Trump is rich with self-applied superlatives, the kind of bluster you'd usually avoid like the plague.

On the other hand, a modest man with a Timex doesn't make good television.

"The Apprentice," with Trump lording over 16 rivals for his jowly nod, has turned out to be very good television -- not to mention a big hit, bringing NBC the thing it needed most (ratings juice) while giving Trump the thing he craves most (attention).

But there's more. A reported salary bump next season will fetch Trump as much as $200,000 per episode. This will make him the highest-paid person in prime time, he brags, conveniently overlooking, say, Ray Romano, whose weekly haul is a widely reported $1.8 million.

"The Apprentice" finale airs Thursday, when finalists Bill Rancic, a Chicagoan and owner of a cigar business, and Harvard MBA Kwame Jackson of New York complete one last business task.

They began their respective projects on last week's episode, with each of them supervising a team of fired former adversaries (including four of the original eight women) whose drive and even loyalty in the service of their vanquisher is highly suspect.

At the end of the live, two-hour finale, who -- Bill or Kwame? -- will have made the most of his huge, pitfalls-plagued assignment? Who will hear Trump's dread words, "You're fired"? And who will get the grand prize: the $250,000 "dream job of a lifetime" running something or other for Trump for a year?

"The Apprentice" comes at a curious time. The image of business has been tarred, and thousands of Americans hurt, by scandals at such corporations as Enron and Tyco, where greed and excess reigned. Prosecutions are ongoing. Victims' wounds are fresh.

But "The Apprentice," while promoting greed and excess, isn't really about business. It's just set there. It's a boardroom game show crossed with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," with Trump the embodiment of "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" for viewers and contestants alike.

Intoning the words "You're hired" this week, Trump will crown the person he deems most worthy to work for him.

But Trump remains active in his other role. As an "Apprentice" co-executive producer, he has an abiding interest in the show's popularity. His choices of who gets fired have had an obvious effect on its entertainment value. He has deftly set the stage for Thursday's finale, when a Star As Businessman is born.

It's just another example of why Trump is Trump: He puts on a good show.

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