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'Celebrity Apprentice' finale recap: John Rich wins in a circus of a season

May 23, 2011 |  6:28 am

Who would have thought the finale of "Celebrity Apprentice" could make you a little misty eyed?

It was a bit emotional as we were reminded that this show was actually about raising money for charity and helping children.

Maybe good could come after the circus came to town, as Donald Trump proclaimed in the season opener. Maybe we shouldn't feel guilty for watching for hours, week after week, as  has-beens, never-will-bes and others prostrate themselves before the [fill in the blank] that is Donald Trump. Perhaps it was even charitable that we gave up our Sunday nights to watch NeNe Leakes call La Toya Jackson "Casper the Ghost,"  Meat Loaf toggle between fits of anger and floods of tears and Dionne Warwick squander the legend status that we were repeatedly told she had. 

It was for the children.

As the final two contestants — Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin and country-music star John Rich — battled for $250,000 for charity, viewers were taken along with each star as they worked with their respective charities. Matlin traveled to Africa — where, exactly, on the continent they didn't make clear — to deliver hearing aids to deaf and hard-of-hearing children with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, her charity. Seeing the eyes of those children the first time they were able to hear sent a chill down my spine. 

The same passion was evident when Rich traveled to Memphis to visit the patients and families at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, his charity. He became teary-eyed as he performed before a crowd of children stricken with cancer and their worn-down parents. It was incredibly powerful stuff, and it was a reminder that both Rich and Matlin were not just hard-working and persistent players in a game, but also decent human beings.

But don't get me wrong: The finale did stick to its roots was still a continuation of the season-long train wreck.

RELATED: Marlee Matlin and her sign language interpreter Jack Jason

Surprisingly, Matlin and Rich have been the two on their best behavior all season. Matlin has been a straight shooter from the beginning, hard-working and something of a gyroscope, adding a measure of balance and reason amid the insanity. The same can be said of Rich, who, with his drawl, has been there to offer an eye roll and droll comment, expressing exactly what we were thinking at home. He had me frustrated, however, with the cowboy hat casting a shadow on his face in the live finale — it made him look like the phantom of the Grand Ole Opry. 

There's a lot to discuss, so let's break it down.

The final challenge: This week was centered around the conclusion of the challenge that started last week. The two picked their former competitors to team up to produce a commercial and an event for 7-Up's retro campaign. Matlin picked the 1970s, with a guest appearance by the Harlem Globetrotters. Rich had the 1980s and a performance by Def Leppard. 

Both did an outstanding job, but I actually think that Matlin did far better. And in a trip to the grocery store today, I saw the 7-Up cans that Rich designed (zebra stripes) and Matlin's (a disco ball) on display. I have to say, in person, Matlin's disco ball looked much better. But her team's ad was pretty terrible, because she gave far too much leeway to her teammate Meat Loaf. At the show itself, Matlin's team — including Meat Loaf, La Toya Jackson and Richard Hatch — greeted the executives, and things seemed to go off without a hitch. (I can't imagine the last time that many middle-aged white men in fancy suits had been at a Harlem Globetrotters game.)

And Rich's team — Lil Jon, Star Jones and Mark McGrath —made a few stumbles. For one, no one greeted Trump or the 7-Up executives. And a misstep in timing led Rich to introduce Def Leppard 20 minutes before they were set to take the stage. But in a rectifying moment — certainly proof of his leadership and resourcefulness — Rich returned to the stage with a guitar and put on an acoustic show until the "real" band could come out. 

The outcome: Despite her performance in the finale — and a million-dollar boon in an earlier fund-raising challenge — it wasn't enough to trump (pun kind of intended) Rich for the top prize. Rich had emerged as a favorite, among his fellow contestants and just in the setup of the show. For the finale, Matlin, to me, seemed to be portrayed as an underdog, even though she put on a great show for 7-Up and had a star run this season. 

I like Rich, but his wryness turned into confidence, which soon bridged into cockiness. Toward the end, as much as I respect him, I found him to be a little off-putting, as he bragged about the connections he was cashing in and how hard he worked. He seemed to be overselling himself. 

Shockers of the season: It's hard to believe that the season has finally come to close. It's certainly had it's fair share of surprises and reality-show moments worth gawking at.

I have to start with NeNe versus ... well, take your pick. I was disappointed when Leakes just up and left the show without explanation; I have come to — kinda, sorta — respect her decision, but I still think she should have stuck it out, even if for the entertainment value alone.

But Star Jones — ugh. If it wasn't embarrassing enough that she showed up to the finale wearing a dress that looked like a bath mat, she ought to be ashamed of herself for inappropriately dragging race where it didn't belong. Jones said that Leakes was only getting in altercations with African American women on the show, which is hogwash. Leakes is an equal-opportunity trash talker. And the women she primarily went after — Dionne Warwick and Jones — really deserved it. 

Where Leakes was loud and a little brash, Jones was flat-out nasty, pretending to play these mind games and spewing venom all season toward other women. I think whatever goodwill she had with the American viewing public may have been burned after her sniping and pretentious performance on "Apprentice."

With Warwick, before the show, my exposure to her was limited to an episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger" in which she sang "I Say a Little Prayer" with a girl playing her granddaughter. And I knew she was related to Whitney Houston (she's her cousin). I simply accepted that she was a legend. But she was horrible, the worst possible definition of a diva. She didn't want to work, she was wore this legend badge like a chip on her soldier, and watching the way she interacted with Matlin, who's deaf, and said that people would feel sorry for Matlin, was cringe-inducing. 

But I'll admit that I was totally wrong about La Toya Jackson and way too harsh at the outset. She may not have been an MVP like Matlin or Rich, or even Lil Jon, but she was a perceptive player and a survivor, even if the whole "entertainment-entrepreneur" moniker was way off base. 

Other conclusions after this season: I still wish Jose Canseco, a onetime ballplayer famous for his steroid use, would have had at least one flash of roid rage this season, instead of being the dense lump he turned out to be. I imagine the now-imprisoned Richard Hatch would have performed much better, instead of being a trash-talking snitch, had his charity been the Richard Hatch Legal Defense Fund.

Oh, and I now know who David Cassidy is.

Your take: Now, here's the most important part — what do you think? Share your thoughts on this doozy of a season, its characters and its surprises. Thanks for joining in the conversation. It's been a heck of a season, and your comments have made it all the more interesting.

— Rick Rojas

Videos: John Rich's team, above, made an '80s-themed ad for 7-Up featuring Dee Snyder in a return to his Twisted Sister get-up, and Marlee Matlin's team, below, reached into the archive to dig up fads from the '70s and an old star from 7-Up ads back in the day.

 

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