Of the long wave of “rich people are just the super best” reality shows we’ve been blessed/cursed with in the last five years, Shark Tank is easily the best, simply because it puts the rich into the arena where their skills at making money are the most helpful: the investment arena. At its best, Shark Tank, based on the original series popular in many other countries called Dragon’s Den, is all about rich businessmen deciding to share their wealth with the many plebes who come to them with supposedly great ideas. The show is basically the audition episodes of American Idol, crossed with the vague business smarts of the original season of The Apprentice, then given them an added twist of any episode of a show where the judges have a heated argument about just what they thought of a certain item or performance. It can get a little same-y, but it’s also hypnotically watchable, perfect Friday night TV.
For those of you who haven’t seen either this program or Dragon’s Den, the concept couldn’t be simpler. A panel of five successful businessmen—including two billionaires in the U.S. edition—sits in a large boardroom set. One by one, a series of applicants—usually five or six per episode—come into the room to explain to the investors just why they should be given the money to grow their own businesses. Unlike a lot of shows, these aren’t just people with crazy dreams. These are people who actually have businesses but are bumping up against the ceiling of what they can realistically do at their current sizes. They hope the investors will give them the money to grow past their current sizes and step on up to the next level of the capitalist playing field.
The ideal version of this show, of course, involves all of the investors—known as sharks—trying to outbid each other to work with the person who’s pitching their idea. Tonight’s episode actually featured Robert Herjavec, former head of an IT security firm, offering a man who’d created some sort of nasal passage breathing strip, designed to keep toxins out, a $4 million offer to buy his company outright, since the man has apparently had great success selling his product in the Middle East (who knew?). But there are also the cases where the applicant screws up his or her own chances by dreaming too big or by just having no fucking clue that his or her idea is ultimately pretty terrible. On the other hand, there are plenty of segments where all but one of the sharks drops out, leaving that one to barter with the applicant, and these segments are pretty hit and miss, much less inherently dramatic than the ones where everybody starts shouting.
The first week of Shark Tank, season two—new episodes aired on Sunday and Friday—introduced this season’s big, new element: Mark Cuban, billionaire, now sits on the panel with the other sharks. (Cuban's only in three episodes and will be replaced by Jeff Foxworthy at some point, so… yay?) Cuban’s got so much money that he can apparently just do whatever he wants with it and make it turn into more money, so he seems as though he’s a bit looser with his money than some of the other sharks. (Notably, real estate guru Barbara Corcoran seems like she’s never, ever invested in anything in her life, just because she sees too many potentially dangerous intangibles.) This means that things in season two are a nice minor step up over season one. Cuban adds an element of intriguing wheeling and dealing, as he’ll often make deals with the other sharks, cutting some out to cut others in. (One of my favorite moments involves Cuban jumping on board an already done deal with all-around asshole Kevin O’Leary, seemingly JUST so O’Leary can cut Herjavec out of the deal. It’s great, funny TV, particularly when the other sharks start mocking poor, picked-on Herjavec, whom they all seem to dislike because he has the least money out of all of them.)
O’Leary and Herjavec both came over from the Canadian Dragon’s Den, and even when the applicants are kind of terrible, they’re the best thing about the show. Herjavec sits at the end of the table with a hangdog expression, while O’Leary gives him an endless amount of shit with a grin that can be seen from space. O’Leary’s the most cutting and the most open of the sharks, and when he sees something he wants, he goes a little nuts in trying to get it, all but badgering the applicant into joining him. This rears its head most readily in the segment where he sets his sights on Toygaroo, a company that purports to be the Netflix of toys. Of all of the ideas proposed in these two episodes, it’s probably the most innovative and the best. For every possible question—do the toys get cleaned? What happens if kids break the toys?—the woman applying has a good answer. O’Leary, who has experience in the toy industry, thinks he can get her in the door with Mattel and Fisher Price. Herjavec and Cuban want to help her on the Internet end of things. Cuban and Herjavec can offer more money; O’Leary can offer the toy companies. (In case you were wondering, this is the segment where O’Leary cuts Herjavec out of the deal entirely.) O’Leary’s relentless badgering could be irritating, but it’s not somehow. He’s just a man who knows what he wants and has no limits as to how he’s going to get it.
The applicants this season aren’t as good as some of the ones from season one, particularly since the show seems to have doubled down on competence, rather than unusual applicants. (The only really bad one in the first two episodes is a guy who’s got an alarm clock that cooks bacon instead of buzzing, waking you with the sizzling smell of pork. I’m pretty sure I saw this in a SkyMall once, so maybe he succeeded without the sharks.) The show will occasionally revisit memorable contestants from season one, but these segments are usually pretty boring. It seems like everyone’s doing pretty well, with or without the sharks, solely because they were on television. I mean, sure, that can happen, but the real drama’s in the room.
And it’s in the room where this show shines. There’s a moment in one episode—while the sharks are trying to get a winemaker to part with his proprietary technology designed to serve wine by the glass, but not part with his own wine from his own vineyard—where FUBU founder Daymond John leans across and explains to the other sharks what the term “IP” (in terms of intellectual property) means, and it struck me as an incredibly odd moment. I quickly realized why: In all of the other segments, the sharks weren’t explaining what they meant by “equity” or “royalty” or “controlling interest.” Granted, if you live in the United States and have ever seen a business page or a Fortune magazine, you’ll probably know what these terms mean. But in a reality TV world where things tend to be overexplained, the sheer, heady thrill of hearing the sharks toss around business terms like everybody will know exactly what they’re talking about is just fun. This isn’t a great show. I wouldn’t even argue it’s a very good one. But it’s a very FUN show, and it has a certain respect for its audience. And that makes it good viewing on a long Friday night.