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'Celebrity Apprentice' recap: That's right, Lil' Jon, the catfight's 'poppin'

March 14, 2011 |  7:45 am

NUP_143135_0027 The assignment was to create a children's storybook, but for Lisa Rinna this week's "Celebrity Apprentice" was something of a nightmare. 

The haunting of Rinna began when much of her team either threw her under the bus or didn't bother to speak up. The team — wait, I'm sorry,  Dionne Warwick — came up with the story of a young lioness who learned to be herself. The men told a story of acceptance as students learned to welcome Lil' John, a newcomer different from his classmates.

The judges ultimately decided it was the men who won the night. But that's irrelevant. We've learned who's who for the season. And Star Jones has fallen right into the archetype defined oh so brilliantly by the infamous Omarosa in the first season. She's there to manipulate, to throw around big words simply because she can ("plausible deniability," for example) and issue threats that serve only to illustrate her grandiose illusions. "When you try to take down the queen," she said, "you better kill her."

Oh, brother!

This seems to be the appropriate place to remind everyone what this show is about: raising money for charity. And maybe raising the stock of celebrities — and semi-celebrities — who may not, um, be at their peak. This is supposed to be a rehabilitating experience, and it actually can be.

The funny thing about reality shows like this one that create so many villains is that these shows also have the remarkable ability to humanize. A lot of these contestants, on "Celebrity Apprentice as well as other shows, arrive as caricatures and tabloid headlines. Even the ones looked upon positively are thought of as two-dimensional superlatives: "Academy Award-winning Marlee Matlin" or "music legend Dionne Warwick. (Just as  Rinna had those unfortunate lips and Star Jones was the heavyset co-host of "The View" who, for initially obfuscated reasons, lost a ridiculous amount of weight.)

Though these shows aim to show as many flaws — if not more — as lighthearted moments of humility, they also show the contours that make a flat character come to life.

Rinna is more than a former soap opera star. She's a weak project manager, and she has the personality of the type-A PTA mom who naturally puts herself out there as a martyr. But she's kind and honest to fault. Or Meat Loaf, another example. He's always been portrayed as this alpha-male type, but he was gushingly emotional over a children's book. It may have seemed a bit much at some points, but it was endearing — and I'd argue he even ingratiated himself with the Donald by showing his emotional side.

Then you have the other side of the coin: the people who, the more you see of them, the more you realize how absolutely horrible they are. Star Jones apparently wanted to show that women could be strong and didn't always have to have catfights. And guess what she started! A catfight. She saw weakness in Lisa Rinna and she pounced. She may have been a smart player, but she didn't do anything to further the notion that women can actually get along on reality television. 

And Dionne Warwick was even worse. Warwick tried to act as though she was manipulative and outsmarting Rinna as well. But she was the diva — in the worst possible way. She was self-aggrandizing, trying to get as much credit as possible.

Just take the whole deal over the book cover. Jones contended it should say "written by Star Jones"; Warwick believed it should say "conceived by Dionne Warwick." Remember: This is their team effort for charity. 

Thank goodness for Marlee Matlin. She's the one to watch on this show and turned out to have wonderful wit and refreshing honesty. While everyone watched as Rinna was sacrificed at the Donald's altar, it was Matlin who stepped up and said Warwick should be fired — she conceived a failed story and she's a pain to work with (and if you remember last week, she's not that great with a credit-card machine).

It takes a lot to stand up to a legend. And it takes even more to do it with class and respect. Amid Jones' ignition of a catfight, it's nice to see Matlin — a real class act — honoring a pledge Jones proved herself woefully incapable of living up to. 

— Rick Rojas

Photo: NeNe Leakes, left, Lisa Rinna, Star Jones and Hope Dworaczyk work on their children's book on "Celebrity Apprentice" on Sunday night. Credit: Douglas Gorenstein / NBC