ABC’s long-running entrepreneurship reality series Shark Tank has always meant different things to different people. To aspiring entrepreneurs, it gives insight into how other business owners plan their businesses and how potential investors like the Sharks react to different pitches. For rich people, it’s probably a fun way to look at how cool and smart rich people are. But for most people, the appeal of the show isn’t really about the money or the small businesses trying to get the money, it’s about the perverse thrill of watching judges pick apart someone’s Show And Tell presentation.
Shark Tank, as it has been for the past decade and as the original shows it’s based on continue to be, is about small business owners/inventors/entrepreneurs presenting the thing they invented/the thing they’re selling to a panel of Sharks—a semi-rotating assemblage of rich people looking to invest in new things. The entrepreneurs make a presentation of their thing, usually with a high-energy infomercial-style showcase (“Hey you, don’t you just hate it when that thing happens? Well what if I told you that thing won’t happen with My Invention?”), and then the Sharks ask follow-up questions, make investment offers, or furiously tear down the product and the person who brought it in. (Also, the money the Sharks say they’ll invest isn’t really binding, as the actual business stuff happens off-camera, which is really the only bit of this that feels like a “game.”)
The basic structure of the show means that, for almost every pitch, there’s a moment where it completely stops being fun for everyone and becomes a serious discussion. The entrepreneurs put on a peppy showcase for their thing, be it a new kind of ice cream cone or big chunky buttons you can strap on to your skiing jacket to control your phone while wearing gloves (two examples from a recent episode), and then one of the Sharks rips the band-aid off and says “I think this thing sucks. And for that reason, I’m out.”
It’s typically more polite than that, but not always, and more often than not it seems like Mark Cuban is the guy who kicks off that turn most effectively. He doesn’t have the asshole smarminess of Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary, who hangs his whole Shark Tank persona on the idea of being a ruthless jerk who just wants money (the villain/star of the show), but Cuban’s shtick is that he’s sort of a Regular Guy who just happens to be super rich and he really cares about helping people to get their businesses going. And maybe he does!
But you can only trust outrageously rich people so much, and as soon as it’s no longer useful for the Sharks to be nice, they’ll effortlessly drop the veneer (or pick it back up) in order to get more money out of an investment or to avoid getting screwed by a product that never comes together. It’s all phony in various ways, and that’s why the really engaging thing isn’t seeing if an entrepreneur gets a good evaluation for their business, it’s seeing just how the Sharks are going to react to someone putting their heart on their sleeve and saying “this is the thing I’ve spent my life working on, please tell me it’s good.”
Shark Tank becomes significantly funnier if you imagine the Sharks sitting in the back of a classroom, criticizing the geode that a kid brought in. “Eh, it’s just not for me,” they’ll say as the person involved starts to sob and explain how they’ve given up all of their time and money to this geode (or new method of baking ice cream cones so they’re like doughnuts), and it makes all of the “loser” moments—when a person doesn’t get a deal at all or doesn’t get a deal they’re happy with—just delightfully silly.
It makes it all seem so arbitrary and petty; People make pleas for life-changing money to achieve their dreams, and some other people who just happen to be in a position to have that money and have the ability to give it away have to decide whether or not to do that based—at least to some extent—on how good the presentation is. It’s the ultimate high-stakes version of a school project. Is this where we’ve landed as a society? And is this any worse than ghoulish venture capitalists doing this exact thing in private? At least on Shark Tank we all get to watch and laugh.