The New Martha

No fair. The domestic diva's more sweet than tart these days. Where's the fun in that?

Martha Stewart's people must be scratching their heads and praying right now, wondering whether the domestic diva will pull off her dramatic and almost Titanic-sized comeback

Last month was in every way colored by Stewart's highly anticipated return from the big house. And Americans love a good comeback story.

But so far, the return is as exciting as bad sex and here's why: The new Martha is nothing like the old Martha, the one people passionately loved or hated. This new Martha comes off less like a suave billionaire executive than a frumpy, middle-aged woman.

If you doubt it, spend a few hours taking in Stewart's two new post-prison television shows: "Martha," the bland-as-white-bread daytime talk show, and her tepid prime-time version of a popular reality show, "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart."

Despite Martha's obsession with perfection, neither show is particularly impressive or new in concept. And neither is as lovely as a page in her flagship magazine, Martha Stewart Living.

In both shows, which have received so-so ratings, the old Martha is gone and there are no hints of where she's hiding. Martha is no longer the stone-cold diva dressed in a tweed suit and fur-trimmed coat, carrying a $12,000 designer handbag.

On her live talk show, the replacement Martha dresses like someone's middle-America aunt. Meanwhile, in prime time so far (two episodes), Martha makes few appearances. She gives her interviewees tips (e.g., women in business don't cry) and appears to hedge when it comes time to boot one of the 16 candidates for a job at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Worst of all, the new daytime Martha is quick to give everyone a compliment. She tells guests how pretty they are. She invites them to sit with her on the center island of her gigantic talk-show set. And she fumbles lines, doesn't look at the correct camera and uses the word "fabulous" way too often.

Who the heck is this woman? Does that sound like the Martha Stewart you know? Certainly not. "Lovable, cuddly Miss Martha will die on the vine," predicts Jeff Ryder, director of the writing for television and film concentration at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

"People think of Martha as a tough boss so she's going to have to live up to her pre-prison persona," says Ryder, an award-winning former writer for "The Guiding Light" soap opera. "As for the daytime show, she'd better be ready to share her prison secrets with the audience -- 'Behind Bars with Martha' -- as she whips up her tasty tarts.

"The only way she'll last," he says in an e-mail, "is if she can create a new TV persona that audiences crave. ... A bitchy, tough domestic goddess who can survive prison and fight her way back to the top of the heap in the boardroom. But Oprah, she ain't."

While the comeback might seem off to a rocky start, Michael Solomon, professor of consumer behavior at Auburn University, says no one should count Martha out even though she's late to the reality TV and talk-show party. "She's the diva. She's got it down," Solomon says. "She knows what she's doing. She's very shrewd. In five years, she might not be a household name that she is now. I certainly wouldn't count her out yet. A potential mistake she's going to make is overexposure. It's about timing. The reality show genre has peaked. People are turning off those shows now. Her handlers are saying strike while the iron is hot. But you can overdo that." "Nobody cares" about her return right now, says Simon Sinek, who teaches at Columbia University's graduate program in strategic communications and is chief executive and founder of the New York-based corporate refocusing business SinekPartners. "We loved to watch her rise. We're kind of tired of it. I don't think anybody cares much if she succeeds or fails. We used to do that. She's not water-cooler stuff anymore. There doesn't seem to be the same buzz."

Perhaps the old Martha will return. We can only hope. Until then, maybe it's like she told the first of the 16 job candidates she dismissed:

At this time, Martha, "You just don't fit in."