In Praise Of ‘Shark Tank,’ TV’s Most Addictive Capitalist Fever Dream

I was watching an episode of Shark Tank a few weeks ago, and these two poor guys were just cooked. They didn’t realize it yet, either. The two of them had shuffled into the room in matching tuxedos only a few minutes earlier to try to pitch some sort of Internet security app, and now there they were, flailing about and begging their interrogators for two minutes (“Just two minutes!”) to explain. They thought they still had a shot. That was the saddest part. But at some point, the truth started setting in and the optimism drained from their eyes. Like a lobster in a pot of boiling water. Cooked.

Part of their failure that night was on them. They didn’t seem to have a solid grasp on the technical aspects of their product, which resulted in one or both of them mumbling “industry leading standards” in response to every question about specifics. And part of it was the choice of the product itself, because tech pitches often run into trouble on the show. (Some of the sharks have extensive experience in the field and tend to hold tech products to a higher standard, and the others have none and tend to steer clear entirely.) But mostly they just ran into a buzzsaw that day. Even Robert was rough on them, and Robert is a sweetheart, especially compared to the rest of the panel. It was brutal television. And I couldn’t look away.

Shark Tank, for the uninformed, goes something like this: Small business owners with a product to sell come on and attempt to pitch it to a group of investors, referred to on the show as “the sharks.” As executive producer Mark Burnett said when the show was still just a glimmer in the eye of ABC executives, “If you’re coming in desperate for money, it’s like there’s blood in the water. If you want to be a great entrepreneur in the U.S., you had better be ready to swim in shark-infested waters.” It’s all very literal.

The current version of the show features a roster of six main sharks, with five appearing in any given episode. They are, alphabetically: Barbara Corcoran, Mark Cuban, Lori Grenier, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec, and Kevin O’Leary. Now, you have a choice to make here. OPTION ONE: I could use a bunch of boring words like “entrepreneur” and “real estate” and “patents” to explain who each of these investors are and how they made their money. OPTION TWO: I could post a sample video package ABC used at the beginning of a recent show, which explains those things and features footage of the sharks doing things like driving expensive sports cars and drinking champagne on speed boats and closing important business deals at hilariously fake business meetings, and which ends with an actual shark kind of roaring like a lion for some reason. Up to you.

Excellent choice.

Once the contestants begin their pitches, their methods vary widely. Some of them bring visual aids, some bring samples of the product (especially if it’s food), and others rely more on their (hopefully) winning personalities. But the journey always gets us to the same place: The contestants tell the sharks what investment they’re seeking (say, a 10 percent stake in the company for $50,000), and then the sharks have the option of putting up their own money to make a deal, usually after a few more rounds of questions and counteroffers. Stripped down to its frame, Shark Tank is a show about dreamers asking millionaires for thousands in the hopes of becoming millionaires themselves.

A brief aside: If this sink-or-swim capitalist small business fever dream all sounds incredibly American to you, there’s a good reason for that. Like most great American things (democracy, pizza, Jason Statham movies), it actually originated elsewhere. Shark Tank as we know it today was born in Japan in 2001, with a show titled マネーの虎 Manê no Tora, which Wikipedia tells me translates to Money Tigers. For the sake of clarity, allow me to note here that “Money Tigers” is both a) a much better name for this show than Shark Tank, and b) a fantastic name for almost anything, really. Examples include:

  • A legendary underground British punk band from the 1970s that was banned from CBGB for urinating on the crowd from the stage.
  • A movie about Ponzi schemes starring Nicolas Cage and Wesley Snipes that they agreed to do at the aggressive and repeated requests of their accountants.
  • A television show about actual wealthy tigers. I’m thinking either a goofy animated series or a documentary-style program about two real tigers that received $100 million from an eccentric animal lover in his or her will.

And so on. There are something like 30 iterations of the program around the world. Most of them have abandoned both the original title and the American one, opting instead for the more alliterative Dragon’s Den, but a few other fun outliers are floating around. Finland calls it Lion’s Mouth. Ukraine calls it Business Sharks, which isn’t that bad, actually. And Slovenia calls it, in that classic tradition of unbridled Slovenian optimism, Dober Poser, which translates to “Good Deal.” It’s no Money Tigers, but it’ll do.

Searching Shutterstock for "money tiger" does not disappoint, by the way

Searching Shutterstock for "money tiger" does not disappoint, by the way.

But back to the pitches. Most of them do go pretty well, actually, with the majority ending with the sharks and contestants finding some number they can all live with, and then closing the deal with a handshake or hug. This feels good. It’s like watching a small slice of the American Dream unfold right in front of you. (Sometimes the American Dream involves gluten-free, vegan drinking cups that you can eat once you’ve drained them of liquid. As The Founders intended.) My favorite thing to do is watch the contestants’ faces. During a successful pitch, you can almost always see the gradual transformation from panic to relief to excitement. It’s even better when the sharks go crazy for a product and start bidding against each other. These poor people have been so primed for a tough negotiation that when it goes too well, they don’t know how to behave. You ever see a cartoon where a robot is given a riddle it can’t solve with logic? It’s kind of like that. Eyes bulging, frantic movements of the head and neck, tiny sentence fragments spilling out almost at random, etc. But happy. So very happy. One time, I thought a contestant was going to legitimately pass out.

But there’s a flip side to that coin. As we discussed up top in The Ballad of the Tuxedo Bros, every once in a while, a pitch goes down in flames. I’m not usually a fan of cringe-y moments or watching people have their dreams crushed on national television, but as I said, there was something about the moment that made it impossible to look away. I just wanted to jump into the screen and start answering the questions for them, using my extensive Shark Tank viewing experience to help them through it. Or if that wouldn’t work — and it probably wouldn’t have, because they were too far gone by then — to go back in time and personally prep them for what they’d be facing in there. Anything to prove that their fate could have been avoidable. And that I could have been the one to help them avoid it. All of these felt like reasonable reactions at the time, and still do.

Which, for the record, is insane. It’s one of the byproducts of watching the show with any kind of consistency, this feeling that you — the person sitting at home on a Friday night between 9 and 10 p.m. watching television in your sweatpants — have suddenly become some sort of expert investor. You’ll find yourself developing hard and firm opinions about things you knew little about only weeks earlier, like the value of a royalty deal (risky) or whether the market for hummus is too oversaturated to justify an investment without a deal with a national grocery chain already in place (it is). It’s lunacy, mostly, but it’s also what makes the show so fun to watch, and so addictive. God help the poor soul who ever asks me if I have an opinion on the best strategy for a pitch. My answer will start with, “Okay, the first step is to bring something adorable and hand it to Robert…” and then it will continue uninterrupted for the next 45 minutes, at which point, it will end with, “… and that’s how you land Cuban.”

In fact, maybe that’s my actual pitch. Maybe I should go on Shark Tank and try to convince the sharks to invest in a series of DVDs — or possibly a subscription web series — where I, the Shark Tank expert, instruct potential contestants on the best strategy for securing a deal. It would be so weird and meta, me on the show pitching a product that explains how I would pitch them a product if I were on the show. Like, picture this…

KEVIN “MR. WONDERFUL” O’LEARY: I just don’t see how this is marketable. I have years of expertise with reality show strategy DVD series — I’m the only one up here who does — and I just can’t see this working. But I’ll make you an offer…

ME: Actually, if I can interrupt you for a second, this brings me to the chapter of my series titled “Kevin Is an Obvious Plant Whose Whole Purpose on the Show Is to Ramp Up Drama by Low-Balling People, But You Have to Pretend to Take Him Seriously So the Other Sharks Don’t Jump on You for Disrespecting Him.”

And then I finish my pitch and ask for a $100,000 for a 10 percent stake in the company. And Cuban gives it to me. I can’t explain why or how because it’s proprietary information that you have to order the DVDs to learn. But trust me, it works. This could be huge. It’s just a shame I wasn’t able to get it to market in time to save those poor bros in the tuxedos.

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