Reality television sure loves to stray from its namesake. And for good reason too. I mean, we love complaining about it, but no one actually wants to watch participants make rational decisions all season long. Not when they could be hurling obscenities and throwing chairs around instead.
Now, these moments can often feel set-up—especially when paired with dramatic scene cuts and over-the-top war music, which, they always are. Each passing minute, it becomes tougher to believe that the participants aren't playing characters. Would they really choose to act this way out of their own free will?
"The lack of sleep, the eight cameras pointed at your face everyday, the stress of trying to look good while working with unfamiliar people—it takes its toll on even the strongest and most stoic person."
"The show is definitely not scripted," says Alvin Ang, one of the sixteen contenders chosen to compete in The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition. "Some participants play up certain roles in front of the camera—air time is never a bad thing, after all—but the heat of the drama is real."
So, it'd seem the on-screen antics aren't a result of stage direction, but rather, chemistry. The producers, whom I now imagine wearing lab coats and safety goggles, stir up a mix of high stakes, tight schedules, and intense competition. Then, as good experimenters do, they sit back and document the results. "It's reality TV," says Alvin. "Explosions occur."
The contestants are given ample reason to act irrationally—off-screen, of course. Breakdowns only make for good entertainment when they're devoid of context; otherwise, you just end up feeling bad. And there's a whole other kind of reality television for that: news. "The lack of sleep, the eight cameras pointed at your face everyday, the stress of trying to look good while working with unfamiliar people," Alvin explains. "It takes its toll on even the strongest and most stoic person."
"I wasn't just there to win it. I had to look good doing it, if possible."
Throughout the process, Alvin found himself turning to philosophy to keep his mental health in check. "I have ADHD, and sleep deprivation really messes with my mood, my ability to control my emotions, and my cognitive facilities overall. I fought this with philosophy. I would read Aurelius’s 'Meditations' after a long day of filming, and his words, though rarely positive, filled me with strength. He made me feel less alone.'”
In a way, The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition is like the world's toughest job interview. Alvin had to beat out thousands, simply for the opportunity to compete. Then, he finds himself in a group of sixteen, knowing that only one will receive the USD250,000 job offer. So, there's no guarantee that he walks away with anything. However, what is guaranteed is that, either way, his potential struggles and shortcomings will be broadcast to thousands of viewers.
"For me, it added a more serious dynamic to the show; I wasn't just there to win it, I had to look good doing it, if possible," Alvin says. "I always kept in mind that it was par for the course; something I signed up for." As a professional BJJ fighter, he did have an edge over some of the other competitors. "I’ve been knocked out in a fight, and have lost numerous Jiu-Jitsu matches. They were all recorded and put on the internet for posterity, for the world to see. How is this one any different? At the end of the day, people will have a laugh, have a cry, and move on. I care more about myself than others ever will."
"As the show progressed, I had a strange feeling I was being filmed in my hotel room—while I slept, in the shower, while I was reading."
Audience pressure aside, the show itself wasn't set up to be a cakewalk either. The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition was planned out to be the toughest version of The Apprentice ever created. It added physical challenges into the mix along with the business challenges which the show is traditionally known for. ONE Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong headed the boardroom—where participants are traditionally called in before getting fired—and the atmosphere inside never failed to be brutal.
"I almost passed out the first time I was sent to the boardroom," says Alvin. "Chatri is already an intense guy by nature. Couple that with the fact that everything is filmed and you have a $250,000 job on the line—to say the atmosphere was intense would be the understatement of the century. It was almost a physical thing; you could feel it, taste it, cut it like a knife."
Everything put together, it's no surprise that The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition took its toll on the participants. Once filming had wrapped up, it was still a long road before some of them could return to reality. "I adapted poorly," says Alvin. "As the show progressed, I had a strange feeling I was being filmed in my hotel room—while I slept, in the shower, while I was reading. I knew it was impossible but it was hard to shake the feeling off. After filming, I was pretty depressed and anxious for a while. I have a family history of mental illness, so I was worried that I might be going off the deep end."
Alvin worked his way out with the help of his fellow castmates. "There were some of them feeling the same way, and we formed our own little support group so to speak. I eventually decided to up and travel, in the middle of the pandemic, to far-flung Kyrgyzstan. It let me get some time alone, away from everybody else, away from the cameras!" That was the reset he needed to get back to his usual self. "I came back feeling like a new man."
Watch The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition every Thursday at 8:40PM SGT on AXN. Replays available every Wednesday at 10PM SGT on meWATCH.