When The Big Shot with Bethenny was announced, it seemed like the second coming of The Apprentice format. The central conceit (“the next generation of business moguls will compete for a chance to be second-in-command to business tycoon and Skinnygirl founder Frankel”) and terminology (“candidates”) are identical, and the HBO Max series is also produced by Apprentice creator Mark Burnett.
On paper, it’s a perfect idea: The Apprentice was a strong format, one I had so much affection for that I kept watching despite its host’s racism. Bethenny Frankel is excellent at reality TV performance, delivering both honest, raw moments and savage critiques of others’ behavior. Bethenny is also a branding genius, one who pioneered using reality TV to promote a personal line of products, and had the presence of mind to pause an emotional breakdown to ask for a bottle of her branded alcohol. Plus, hosting a search for an employee brings Bethenny full circle, as we first met her on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart in 2005.
The Big Shot with Bethenny is not The Apprentice. It’s such a mess that it made me long for the original format, and we all know how that turned out. Sometimes her new series resembles the chaotic, unprofessional workplace of Bravo’s Flipping Out; sometimes it’s one of Bethenny’s Real Housewives’ spin-offs; and sometimes it’s like one of those flat, failed Apprentice clones from the late 2000s.
There is plenty of unchecked ego and irrational, inconsistent decision-making, but it arrives inside a reality competition that feels like it was slapped together while being filmed. (The Big Shot was filmed between last fall and this winter, in New York City, but we never see Bethenny wearing a mask, nor any of the candidates or staff, even when they’re out and about or around other people. Bethenny’s charity has, impressively, provided more than 1.2 million masks to those in need; maybe she should buy one for herself next.)
Bethenny literally fires half the cast in the middle of the first episode, and then only has five candidates. I like that idea in theory, that no one is safe, but eliminating so many people based on shallow first impressions means that I didn’t even know their names. “I was literally given a fucking sentence,” one of those early boots, Brody, says to a producer, clearly upset, but the show gives us no reason to care.
“I don’t want you to be very upset,” Bethenny says in the middle of dumping people. I’m sure they’ll be very happy to have gotten out early, especially when they see how Bethenny spends most of her time shitting all over the remaining candidates. “I envisioned these powerhouse people,” she says, lamenting what losers showed up in the middle of a pandemic to be on her legitimately terrible HBO Max reality show. She mocks, repeatedly, and in separate scenes, the clothing one woman is wearing. She mangles another candidate’s last name and acts as if it’s beneath her to even try to pronounce it correctly.
I’ve been delighted to watch Bethenny shit all over her co-stars’ behavior on The Real Housewives of New York City. It’s uncomfortable and cruel to watch her do mock people who’ve dropped everything to be on her show, and she treats them like pawns who’re making it possible for her to have yet another platform.
The candidates are ostensibly applying for a job, and have far less status and power than Bethenny does, as both the boss and an executive producer. The question of whether the job is real or not, however, is raised by a disclaimer in the credits that says “Any on-camera commitment is contingent upon the participant engaging in any required hiring process and entering into a binding agreement with the host or the host’s company.”
What really lost me, though, is the deluge of double standards. On The Real Housewives, the stars’ hypocrisy is usually fuel for light humor, but on The Big Shot, Bethenny says one thing and does another so often my head was spinning. At the first task, Bethenny calls one person out for saying she’s “stressed as fuck.” “I cannot express to you how unprofessional that is,” Bethenny tells her. “I was literally taken aback by that.” Meanwhile, Bethenny describes the same task as “just a hand job.”
Bethenny drops one candidate because that person says she hopes to retain her side hustle business; the next day, Bethenny rips another candidate for saying they’d dropped everything to be on the show. Later, she declares how moving it is that “people are making huge sacrifices to be here.”
Reading from a script written by a candidate, Bethenny whispers, “Shit, wow, this is written really bad,” and there are even subtitles to make sure we know what she said. Cut to an interview in which she rants about how “bad grammar is not acceptable.” (The script was written badly.)
When a candidate briefs Bethenny on a product—essentially giving Bethenny talking points—the candidate says Bethenny could say things like, “I’m tired of being in fucking sweatpants.” Bethenny, who curses nonstop, is horrified: “I can’t imagine cursing for someone you’re going to do a job interview for. It’s shocking to me. I’m front another generation.” Later, she says, “It is a not a corporate, traditional job. I will never pretend it is.”
Pick something, please! Human beings change their minds, and learn and grow, so I’d totally be up for watching Bethenny learn from this process—and that’d certainly differentiate her show from its Mark Burnett-produced predecessor.
Instead, there is so much contradictory posturing that I wouldn’t be surprised if this entire series culminated in the unveiling of Hypocrisy By Bethenny, an online course that tries to teach you how toxic diet culture is while selling you Skinnygirl products.
There is one moment when Bethenny recognizes that she’s demanding different behavior from her candidates. “I get away with it, and I am the rainmaker,” she says. “But the people around me need to be completely professional.” Still, that’s like inviting a bunch of kids over to your pool to swim and then screaming at them for getting wet. Also, it’s just not true: the “employees” we see on screen behave just like she does.
So what exactly does Bethenny want? Even she doesn’t seem to know. “Come in here and get the fucking shit done, and I’ll call you whatever you want,” she says a few minutes into the premiere. “I just need somebody to run this goddamn circus.” (I assume that’s a completely professional goddamn circus.)
Later, she says “this is a next-to-impossible search,” which I read as code for “this is all for a TV show and a complete joke.”
If the TV show was better, all of this sanctimoniousness might be worth it. But The Big Shot with Bethenny is simply a mess.
The second major task starts one-third of the way through episode four—and there will apparently be seven episodes total. The first two tasks both have twists, and testing people on how well they think on their feet or deal with curveballs is not a bad idea, but ends up just making everything frantic. So does the parade of additions and subtractions. Perhaps realizing that firing half the cast in the first episode didn’t give them enough to work with, the show constantly shuffles candidates in and out and around.
That fourth episode is the closest to a traditionally structured episode, and it reveals that The Big Shot with Bethenny has absolutely nothing to add to this genre. On The Apprentice, there was a lot of veneer and product placement, but also legitimate business and branding challenges. The tasks were real, and sometimes resulted in real-world products or advertising.
There’s such a great opportunity here for Bethenny to share her knowledge. She is a self-made entrepreneur, and is obviously both strategic and successful. But she doesn’t seem to have any interest in doing much more than talking about her success. I expected—or hoped for—something better than The Apprentice, a show where the host was actually invested in doing more than self-promotion.
In the way that The Apprentice mirrored Trump by projecting his wealth, The Big Shot mirrors Bethenny by projecting imperfections. Her brand is successful but relatable, ruthless but human. The series does have some small self-deprecating moments, like when Bethenny tells a producer someone got bronzer all over the couch, and an off-camera producer says, “yeah, that’s yours,” or when Bethenny tries to leave the work loft/set but can’t get the elevator to show up.
While The Apprentice exalted Trump, it also didn’t spend a whole lot of time with him, which is what made it watchable for me. There were no interviews; he rarely showed up to see work in progress, sending his dolt offspring instead, because he didn’t give a shit. Bethenny clearly cares more, but she also remains the center of attention so much that we don’t even get to know the candidates beyond superficial details (“I’m a mom”).
The most-interesting thing that happens in the five episodes I watched involves one of the candidates, Nicole, who sidelines Bethenny in order to focus on the task Bethenny has given her. Cue fireworks. What Bethenny wants is someone who won’t upstage her, and she literally says this: “It’s not the Nicole show. I find you to be a lot.” Bethenny also says things such as, “You need to understand it’s not all about you” and “You’re not humble.”
“Deal-breakers are drama queens, non-team-players,” Bethenny says after demonstrating how to be a drama queen. Another deal-breaker for her: “people who want to be famous.” But why would most people go on a show like this? To promote themselves and their brands, just like they’ve seen Bethenny do. They’re following in her footsteps, but she won’t have that, nor will she let them walk beside her.
In an interview promoting her show, Bethenny told The New York Times, “I know what people want to see. I know what people want to drink. I understand what people think is entertaining.”
If only that was true.
The Big Shot with Bethenny: C–