When Shark Tank, which gives small-timers a chance to present their products or businesses to a panel of five high-toned hustlers who may or may not choose to invest their own money in them, premiered on ABC in the fall of 2009, some critics, such as Tom Shales of the Washington Post, reacted with disdain and revulsion toward what they saw as a post-economic-meltdown geek show, where desperate people trying to cobble together a life raft where made to dance for the amusement of cruel, heckling millionaires. (Shales wrote that it’s “the moments of misery [that] make it memorable,” while conceding that some heartless bastards might find the show “entertainingly sadistic.”) Maybe we’ve all calmed down a little since then, or maybe the producer, Mark Burnett, has tightened up the product. Shark Tank—an Americanized version of a Japanese show that has also inspired offshoots in England, Canada, France, Israel, Finland, Croatia, and other countries—has hung in there as an unlikely network hit, long after you might have thought that most of the “venture capitalists” who are there every week to consider proposals from aspiring entrepreneurs would have gotten bored and found other hobbies.
The show is addictive, and not just for the spectacle of watching strangers look down at their feet and see the tattered, bloody remnants of all their hopes and dreams. Anyone who ever goes a day in this country without taking a minute to wonder how we got surrounded by so much junk isn’t paying attention, and Shark Tank gives you a sense of where some of that junk comes from. (One episode this season featured a woman who had once sold one of the sharks on an idea for a QVC-friendly product and who had returned to pitch her latest idea. Paying tribute where tribute was due, one shark told her, in a pretty respectful tone, “You make crap, but you sell a lot of it.”)
It’s also fascinating to see the actual pitches, partly because, no matter what the backgrounds of the supplicants or the quality of what they’re selling, all the pitches kind of sound the same. It’s as if everyone in America has learned, presumably from television, the exact pitch of semi-ironic fake sincerity that protects the dreamer from seeming too exposed; it’s the next best thing to dignity, and when you’re on national TV trying to peddle shares in your homemade scones operation, the ship has sailed on dignity. The pitches are especially interesting when the speakers go too far, but usually with an undertone of “I’m kidding, of course!”—except they’re not, if it’ll do them any good. One of the most fetching and trickiest performances during the two-hour season finale came from Ashley and Paige, a couple of jewelry designers who’ve both served in the U. S. Army. (Their lines of accessories, with which they hope “to encourage individuality and self-expression,” like Nicolas Cage’s snakeskin jacket in Wild At Heart, were said to accomplish the same feat they perform themselves: “To perfectly marry masculine and feminine characteristics.”) When one shark, Daymond John, was on the fence, one of the women pointed to the other and reminded him, “This girl served 15 months in Afghanistan for you. For your freedom!” As at other times when someone on this show just flat-out goes there, the subtext was something like, Ha ha, wouldn’t it be crazy if I was tacky enough to say something like that for real? But seriously, is that going to get us anywhere?
John is the African-American member of the panel, which wouldn’t be worth pointing out if he weren’t very likely, at least once every couple of episodes, to begin a personal reminiscence by saying that while all the other kids in his neighborhood wanted to be rappers… (He made his fortune designing clothes, which the guys in the old neighborhood apparently found hilarious.) The regular panel also includes Mark Cuban, who is, you know, Mark Cuban; the rather colorless Robert Herjavec, who got his biggest laugh of the season tonight when he cautioned an 11-year-old dog treat manufacturer that Cuban was going to advise him to quit school so he could devote himself full time to his business; and the show’s designated mean mouth, Kevin O’Leary, known to one and all as Mr. Wonderful. O’Leary would pass for one of the sweeter guys in the room if this were a cooking or singing competition, and it’s hard to know whether he’s toned his act down since the early episodes because he has a heart after all or if he just ran out of decent insults. His proudest moment tonight comes when he dresses down a couple of guys who operate “a grilled cheese and tomato soup shop the young at heart.” The menu looks like crap,” Mr. Wonderful told them. “The logo looks like crap. The whole thing is crap. Is crap the brand?”
The show has two women sharks, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Grenier, though they tend to alternate. That can be unfortunate; with all those big swinging dicks in the room, there’s not much incentive to behave when a woman comes in to pitch her dating service, Three Day Rule. O’Leary claims to have heard that as “Three Date Rule” at first, and asks if everyone knows what that is; it’s not really funny, but I didn’t mind it too much until the number of minutes he spend elaborating on his little joke threatened to tip over into the double digits. More obnoxious is Daymond John’s dismay upon learning that the woman, who is presuming to help other people hook up, is single. (He reminds her of the old saying about how nobody trusts a skinny chef. Seriously? That’s an old saying?) On the other hand, it’s hard to get too indignant on behalf of someone who’s looking to charge $100 a month for subscriptions to her site, and who, as a matchmaker, charges people $1000 to arrange three dates.
The sharks keep her onstage for a long time, just in case Kevin wants to crack another funny about the three date rule, and after a while, everything else washes away except for her absolute faith in the potential of her business plan, which is inseparable from her complete inability to explain how it works or why it’s unlike every other successful dating site that’s already out there, except for her willingness to demand a big old dog-choking load of bills for her service. This is such a common occurrence on Shark Tank that it threatens to be the defining aspect of the show, yet it never completely stops being shocking. The 11-year-old—who gets up at 5:00 every morning to make his dog treats before school, a marrow-chilling detail that the sharks seem to think is adorable—is asked about his vision and replies, “I see, like, um, stores with my treats in them, And a website where, um, people come to develop orders, and we could fill them.” That kid might not be the most articulate and best-prepared pitchman in the history of Shark Tank, but he might well be in the top ten percent.