Shark Tank - "Pilot"

Shark Tank debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on ABC.

Shark Tank is just proof that reality TV impresario Mark Burnett never met a successful overseas reality show he couldn’t Americanize somehow. After a few quiet years for the producer, it’s also his best new show in a while and one of the best new reality shows in several years. There are flaws in it, to be sure, but it’s not hard to think that this show could turn into the new reality series everybody’s talking about. Really, all it needs is a catchphrase.

Burnett, of course, was the guy behind The Apprentice (in addition to all of his other reality hits, most notably Survivor), so the return to a business-based reality show is a bit of a trip back to familiar turf for him. But where The Apprentice has turned into a lengthy series of bizarre celebrity catastrophes, product placement deals gone terribly wrong and increasingly spacey decisions from Donald Trump, Shark Tank feels like it has the sort of value-add the best reality series deal in.

All of the best reality shows have something in addition to the show itself to make you feel like you’re not completely wasting your time. Sure, you accomplish equally as much when you watch a marathon of VH1’s CelebReality shows (are they still using that term?) as you do when you watch a marathon of The Amazing Race, but one leaves you feeling like the human race was God’s most terrible experiment while the other just leaves you vaguely enthused. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, as an example, exists only as a vanity project designed to flatter the titular family and/or a way for the viewers at home to indulge in the schadenfreude of realizing the very rich and vaguely famous are also very stupid. But watch The Amazing Race and you get a compelling game show, yes, but also a fascinating travelogue that shows off the world’s rich diversity. The best reality shows hide something vaguely good for you in amongst all the ice cream when they’re at their best.

So what does Shark Tank offer? Frankly, it offers a lot of solid business advice in a time when solid business advice is lacking. The five “sharks” at the show’s center are about as far from someone like Jim Cramer or the rest of the CNBC buffoons as you can get because they’re investing their own money and not trying to get you to invest your money. The basic concept of the show involves a series of potential entrepreneurs stepping into a room with wood-paneled walls (occasionally interrupted by projection screens that show sharks swimming around, unless ABC somehow ponied up for a bunch of sharks to put in the walls, which would be awesome but also horribly depressing) and confronting a panel of five investors (I refuse to call them sharks anymore, ABC!), presenting an offer in their proposed businesses or existing businesses. The investors then decide if they’re going to sign up for the offer or decline. Presumably, they can also undercut each other or try to drive the price up on an investment, but very little of this kind of arguing happens in the pilot. Whether or not that kind of arguing is in the future of the show is probably the difference between this being a one-season curiosity and a genuine hit.

Shark Tank, like nearly every reality show Burnett produces, is based on a series from other shores. In this case, it’s the Japanese show Dragon’s Den. While I have no way of knowing what, exactly, Burnett changed between the Japanese version and this version, the series seems uniquely suited to our shores. The investors’ occasionally ruthless capitalism and focus on making money at any cost contrasts nicely with the entrepreneurs’ heartfelt backstories and dreams for their futures. The opening entrepreneur, Tod Wilson, is a good case in point. Wilson is a New Jersey small business owner, who owns a small eatery named Mr. Tod’s Pie Factory. He also sells his pies, particularly his sweet potato pie, on a wholesale basis, but he’s having trouble keeping up with demand. To that end, he’s asking the investors for $460,000 in exchange for a 10 percent equity stake in his company. Wilson brings samples of his pies, is followed around by a rather horrifying pie mascot (he calls “The Pieman”) and talks a good game. But when it comes down to brass tacks, the investors, who all seem to generally like Wilson and his pies, are surprisingly ruthless about whether or not they’re being asked to overpay for such a tiny stake in a company that this man has staked all of his dreams on.

The whole of Shark Tank is based on the uneasy conflict between the investors’ desire to protect their own money and the oversized dreams of the entrepreneurs. Some of these ideas are pretty good, like a young mother and nanny’s idea for an elephant-shaped way to hide a medicine dropper from young kids, designed to get them to take their medicine, but these ideas don’t necessarily suggest a business model. It certainly helps that all of the investors are terrifically successful, including, among others, Kevin Harrington, who’s behind any number of infomercial products, and Daymond John, who started FUBU. This gives their advice the sort of solid business sense that most TV financial programs are lacking. It’s certainly not any sort of revolutionary economic wizardry, but the advice doled out on the program is pretty good foundational stuff. This is basically the show your dad wished you had seen before you went to college hidden inside of a much more entertaining show about rich people crushing the dreams of people just like you and I.

The two most interesting investors are Robert Herjavec (whose opening introduction is so non-descript about how he made his Internet millions that I assumed he had made them through porn – he didn’t) and Kevin O’Leary. O’Leary is an unrepentant asshole (every reality show needs one) who tells a tearful Wilson that money doesn’t cry at a pivotal point in their negotiation. Herjavec is also an asshole. He’s just much better at hiding it, and he’ll couch his dream crushing in the sorts of smooth platitudes that make those leaving the room feel better about themselves. These two already are beginning to squabble, and they feel like they could develop a nice Simon Cowell-Paula Abdul relationship before all is said and done.

OK, Shark Tank is nothing revolutionary. And it’s going to sink or swim (har har) based on how well it manages to create scenarios that don’t just endlessly repeat the “guy walks into a room and makes his pitch” situation. If we can get some interaction and tussles between the investors, that’ll make for a much better show in the long run. But as a pilot and, thus, a basis for a reality show, Shark Tank has quite a bit going for it. It’s the first business-based program I’ve seen that not only takes the rough times we’re living in seriously but also seems to make a weird advantage out of them. “It can’t get any worse,” Shark Tank seems to say, “so why not dream big while you can. Just make sure you can back those dreams up. And we’ll need to see some sales figures.”

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Weirdly, fully two of the hometown visits with the entrepreneurs (there are three of them) feature random establishing shows of Canadian geese. Burnett is using them as a symbol of the way our money seems to fly away, I can only imagine. Or, y’know, Canadian geese are just an easy get for cameramen looking for local color.
  • I can only assume that the voiceover narration on the screener was a temp track. If it wasn’t, then it was surprisingly unprofessional. But, yeah, considering how many exploding P sounds there were, it was probably a temp track.
  • There are a couple of kinda weird decisions in editing that I can't talk about properly without spoiling some things in the show, so come back after it airs on the West Coast, and I'll discuss them in comments.
  • “The first time that you heard of breast implants, what did you think?”
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