Here's advice for struggling shows ''Jack & Bobby,'' ''The Apprentice,'' ''Listen Up,'' and ''Joan of Arcadia''

By EW Staff
November 26, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

The Apprentice

(NBC, Thursdays, 9 p.m.)

How to fix ”The Apprentice”

Problem Last season we loved watching self-absorbed maniacs make fools of themselves on The Apprentice. But this season there’s something we don’t love — the actual contestants. We’re also burned out on tasks that double as infomercials for big corporations.

Evidence Rule of thumb: The more NBC hypes a boardroom, the more boring it is. With no one to root for, there’s little joy in seeing, say, mealymouthed Ivana spared. And the first five challenges this season were flog-athons for brand names (Mattel, QVC, Crest, etc.) — which is more exhausting than entertaining. Maybe that’s why the show has lost 5 million viewers from last season.

In its defense Exec producer Mark Burnett says he’s in a bit of a casting bind: ”You can’t cast a Goody Two-shoes in a show where they’re fighting for Trump’s favor. They would get eaten alive.” And as for the Crest stunt, he gushes, ”That episode resulted in Procter & Gamble’s biggest product launch ever!” Yippee.

Solution Limit the product placement to one episode a month, tops. Stop relying on unstable hotheads and find the aggressive yet appealing candidates (think Survivor‘s Rupert or The Amazing Race‘s Charla) we all know exist. As Carolyn herself would say — just fix it. —Dalton Ross

Image credit: Jack and Bobby: Bruce Bermelin

Jack & Bobby

(The WB, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.)

How to fix ”Jack & Bobby”

Problem What began as a high-concept saga about a teen boy (Jack, played by Matt Long, left) and his brilliant, destined-to-be-president little bro (Logan Lerman’s Bobby, right) has become mainly about their sanctimonious, deeply flawed mom, Grace (Christine Lahti). Ironically, this promising series has taken on her unflattering personality: preachy and racked with an identity crisis.

Evidence Grace’s stories follow the same old arc: See the brainy liberal engage a Big Issue (religion, feminism, affirmative action); see her embarrass herself with her didacticism; see her learn important lessons in tolerance, motherhood, and the perils of pot smoking. Repetition, multiplied by Grace’s ”unlikability,” equals…alienated viewers (a paltry 2.8 million per week).

In its defense Exec producer Greg Berlanti declined to comment, but we understand why he and his team like to write for the potentially Emmy-bound Lahti.

Solution Dial down Grace a little, and shift the focus back to the boys. We rarely see teenagers wrestle with politics, so let’s watch Jack and Bobby grapple with some weighty topics in addition to the typical WB teen angst. The high concept here is the allure, and the flash-forwards to Bobby’s future administration always intrigue. The more the show hews to its ambitious premise, the better it will be. —Jeff Jensen

Image credit: Listen Up: Ron Tom

Listen Up

(CBS, Mondays, 8:30 p.m.)

How to fix ”Listen Up”

Problem Producers pitched Jason Alexander’s latest comedy, based on sports talk show host Tony Kornheiser, as a ”hybrid” workplace/family sitcom (think 8 Simple Rules of Sports Night). But it’s only half as funny as it could be: The father-knows-nothing scenes are bland, and the writers are forced into Cirque du Soleil-like plot contortions to integrate the family with the funnier workplace stories. The resulting muddle means Listen regularly loses viewers from its far less promising lead-in, Still Standing.

Evidence One recent episode had Dennis Rodman tracking Tony down to retrieve his ”borrowed” Hummer, which Tony had used to drive his daughter to a dance. Another episode, in which Tony has a heart-to-heart with his son, recycled a Cosby Show conversation between Cliff and Theo. (Awkward, given that Tony’s show-within-a-show cohost is Malcolm-Jamal Warner, pictured right, with Alexander.)

In its defense CBS knows it has great potential in the Alexander-Warner pairing. ”Everybody wants to see more of Malcolm,” says exec producer Lindy DeKoven. ”We’re trying to do something different…. Do we know [if we’ll stick with the family element]? No. We’re seeing what works.”

Solution Go for the Malcolm-Tony odd couple. Large, attractive black man + short, pudgy Seinfeld alum = good comedy. And Tony can still keep his family…in a photo on his desk. — Alynda Wheat

Image credit: Joan of Arcadia: Gale M. Adler

Joan of Arcadia

(CBS, Fridays, 8 p.m.)

How to fix ”Joan of Arcadia”

Problem Good God, where have all the disciples gone? The Amber Tamblyn (pictured left with Craig Champion) starrer, which debuted to critical acclaim last year, has lost nearly 2 million viewers this fall. And that’s not the only downer: The stories have become so dark and depressing that Joan is in danger of going to that great lineup in the sky.

Evidence One bummer episode saw Joan sell clothes that were supposed to benefit the homeless and use the money to get her belly button pierced. Meanwhile, the family of the boy responsible for the car accident that paralyzed Kevin (Jason Ritter) decided to sue Joan’s family for emotional distress. Somebody please pass the Prozac.

In its defense While ”incredibly perplexed by the ratings ,” CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler admits that some episodes have been too dark. ”We’re going to balance the tone, and we’re also looking at whether it’s becoming too serialized. But you won’t see diminished support from CBS.”

Solution The show should get back to playing to its strengths (the series is at its best when Joan and the deity engage in witty repartee). And CBS has the blessing of a great promotional platform on Thursday night with CSI and Without a Trace; the network should use it to give Joan more face time with viewers. —Lynette Rice