Celebrity Apprentice Recap: Sanity Prevails!

Last night’s penultimate episode of Celebrity Apprentice began with four contenders and concluded with two. The bad news: Neither of them is pointy dragonling La Toya Jackson. The good news: It’s anybody’s game.

My evil commentary will begin in just a second, but first, please indulge the following metaphor: Celebrity Apprentice‘s “final four” feels like a grownup rematch of American Idol‘s eighth season finalists. Really. John Rich plays Kris Allen, the country troubadour whose sly smarts qualify him as a frontrunner. (I’d like to hear John’s rendition of “She Works Hard for the Money,” actually.) Marlee Matlin is the righteous Allison Iraheta, whose undeniable ferocity is — for some reason — often doubted. Lil Jon’s stage-owning confidence makes him the dreadlocked Adam Lambert (“Aw, skee, skee / whaddaya want from me?“), and the weeping, screaming Meat Loaf gets to be Danny Gokey. It’s almost unfortunate how well these parallels lines up. Try not to slash your own aorta when thinking of Danny Gokey covering “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

And we’re back to evil. Right on schedule.

Since Donald Trump loves pretending that winners of Celebrity Apprentice know things about business, he starts the episode by bringing back previous champs Piers Morgan, Bret Michaels, and Joan Rivers to critique the remaining players. Together, they look like ancient philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Joan Rivers.

“John Rich is one of the fiercest competitors here!” Bret Michaels says, adjusting his bandanna like a real rock-n-roller, or Chris Kirkpatrick, or a dog.

“I believe Marlee’s deafness is an advantage,” scoffs Piers Morgan, who is Sadness: The Person. “I wish I couldn’t have heard Omarosa.” What a jackass!

“I like Meat Loaf because he’s the oldest!” caws Joan Rivers, who might become her own sarcophagus at any moment. (Actually, that’s the last Rivers slam of the evening; Joan’s the fieriest broad who ever lived, and we should polish her sequined blazers in reverence. She’s the real Joan of Snark. Ruh-spect.)

The four players take turns defending themselves in front of the quasi-esteemed posse. John Rich leans forward and claims he’s the best candidate to win because he’s “a songwriter,” though not a psychotic one with a crying disorder like Meat Loaf. Lil Jon asserts that he breaks stereotypes about “blunt-smoking” rappers, but he’s not sure he’d pick himself for the final two. (Bad move, Lil.) Meat Loaf opines that he has the strongest connection with his charity, Painted Turtle, which makes sense because he’s a downtrodden tortoise. Marlee says that her competitors underestimate her abilities, but we all know it’s impossible to underestimate Marlee when the competition is glorified kindergarteners La Toya Jackson and Gary Busey. After a swift consultation with Trump, our trio of Piers, Joan, and Bret decides to eliminate two underlings. You don’t need the extra half hour of boardroom chatter to figure out that Lil Jon and Meat Loaf are toast. Why did Lil Jon openly question his final-two potential? Why did Meat Loaf spend this entire season erupting like a meth-powered replica of Mt. Etna? We’ll never know.

But rejoice: Now that John Rich and Marlee Matlin remain, we’ve got an excellent match ahead of us. Remember last season how we ended up with the criminally undeserving duo of Holly Robinson-Peete and Bret Michaels? What filth was that? Executives don’t want to hang with Mr. Cooper or attempt the unskinny bop (though I’m sure Don Trump Jr. has perfected both). This year’s final two vindicates last year’s best competitors, Curtis Stone and Summer Sanders, who played the game with the same dedication, commitment to task, and understanding of sanity as John and Marlee. I’m pumped and pleased.

THE CHALLENGE: For the final task, Presidon’t Donald Trump tells John and Marlee they’ll create a campaign for the new un-cola “7-Up Retro.” What could be hipper? Crystal Pepsi Classic? Pibb Senior? A&W: Roots? Adhering to the retro theme, John and Marlee are responsible for 1) a commercial, 2) a new pop can design, and 3) a new 12-pack box, and 4) a live presentation featuring either a ’70s Harlem Globetrotters theme or an ’80s Def Leppard theme. Are you as confused as I am? Good.

This is an amazingly lame final task. The last time I thought seriously about 7-Up was when I stayed home from school in third grade, sipped 7-Up to appease my flu, and drowsily watched Barker’s Beauties hawk Sea-Doos to pass the time. Best day of my life? Perhaps, but 7-Up was barely responsible. I still love you, Holly Hallstrum.

Just to make things “interesting” (and to provide footage for future seasons of Celebrity Rehab), Trump forces John and Marlee to recruit their drunken old teammates for the final task. Yep, the eliminated soldiers are back: Star Jones, Richard Hatch, La Toya Jackson, Lil Jon, Mark McGrath, and Meat Loaf process into the room like smirking zombies. It’s hard to look at them, these D-list stars crippled by Trumpelstiltskin’s curse. Star and La Toya’s weird Nerf cheeks have sharpened since we last saw them.

John Rich selects the crackerjack squad of Lil Jon, Star Jones, and clever timberwolf Mark McGrath to assist him. Honestly, that’s an impressive lineup. All three members can think about a single topic for over 30 seconds at a time, which is a Mensa-level feat on this show. Marlee chooses the, uh, phenomenally embarrassing team of Richard Hatch, Meat Loaf, and La Toya Jackson. Oh, Marlee. Those people are plasticine dwarves with emotional scars the size of the giant gold crib where Donald keeps Melania. Danger, dear.

JOHN’S TEAM: John Rich’s team picks the ’80s Def Leppard theme — which plays to John’s “musical strengths,” he says — and nails down a strategy: Since Def Leppard is only available for the 7-Up presentation (and not the 7-Up commercial), the team is forced to develop an ad idea from scratch. They agree on a Zebra-print can and the slogan “Still Keeping It Real,” which is strange, because neither of those things is a good idea. Zebra-print makes me think of bad stuff, like WCW costumes or, uh, WCW costumes. Still, like a true genius, Mark McGrath concots a great idea and calls up Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider to join their brigade. Oh, yes. Dee Snider. The man who made rouge horrifying. After some cajoling, Snider agrees to help shoot the ’80s-themed commercial and shave his scary “Fu Manchu ‘stache” that he sports in Broadway’s Rock of Ages. (Because Dee Snider’s a stage star, apparently. Maybe he’ll star in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Twisted Sister soon.) It’s an adorable commercial shoot that goes well because John, Mark, Star, Lil Jon, and Dee are competent people. I’m happy for their cloud of intelligence, even if it’s puffy with Botox and John’s infuriating Stetson.

MARLEE’S TEAM: And now for a trainwreck the size of Ivanka Trump’s boredom: Marlee finds herself at a table with teammates La Toya Jackson, Meat Loaf, and Richard Hatch. That’s an absinthe-fueled hallucination right there. While Meat Loaf starts monologuing about his nonsense commercial ideas, Marlee centers the team by coming up with a ’70s-themed 7-Up slogan: “Feel the Love.” Clever! Ironically, these people have felt nothing in decades.

Meat Loaf says he wants the 7-Up 12-pack design to look like a boombox. That’s an ’70s idea, see. It makes sense. Marlee nods in approval, but as soon as Meat leaves the room, she ditches the idea. I like this about Marlee. If you don’t want to debate with Meat Loaf, who will undoubtedly kill you with a single chomp of his sad tortoise pucker, you come up with awesome plans after he steps out for a sniffles break. She changes the box designs to her liking and doesn’t listen when Meat Loaf comes back in and protests. How? Using that not-so-secret weapon called deafness. You can stop hollering now, Meat Loaf.

Just before the episode ends (and we’re left on a cliffhanger for next week’s finale), Marlee and the team call up ’70s 7-Up commercial star Jeffrey Holder to help film their ad. The rich-voiced pitchman agrees to the task! Yay! For two seconds, anyway. Then he rereads the contract, realizes felon Richard Hatch will be associated with his name forever, and drops out. Aw! But that voice! It’s so caramelly! And chocolatey! And butterscotchy! As he slams the phone down while La Toya helplessly chirps, we watch Marlee’s team regroup with a disco-themed photoshoot. Richard Hatch dons an afro and poses with 7-Up. Marlee tries on go-go boots. Meat Loaf dresses in the ruffled shirts and suspenders that made him famous in the ’70s, except the longhair wig makes him look like an insulting Fran Lebowitz impersonator. And I’ll be honest: It’s the best he’s looked in years. That tortoise is liberated!

What did you think of this week’s episode? Somewhat tedious? A little predictable? And what did you think of Piers, Joan, and Bret as judges? Leave your comments below, follow me on Twitter at @louisvirtel, and read me regularly at Movieline.com.

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