Good for Business: Five Years in, What Does ‘Shark Tank’ Mean for America?
If you want to appear on Shark Tank, you have to email a Yahoo address. Now approaching its sixth season, ABC’s live-hot-pitches business incubator is wildly, strangely, consistently popular — it’s the most-watched show on Friday nights for viewers ages 18–49, as well as arguably the best and certainly most American reality show on TV1 — and yet its typo-laden official ABC site persists in pointing all hopefuls to SharkTankCasting@yahoo.com, an address that auto-fills on my phone after a certain amount of late-night are-you-ups:
Hi, I’m a 37-year-old “mompreneur” and my genius product is called Husband Leash!
I’m an 8-year-old psychic and I’ve seen my destiny: to get RICH.
Hello there, I’m a former military contractor and my passion is indoor drones.
I have never gotten a reply, but that’s all right. It’s very hard to get on Shark Tank: 40,000 people auditioned last year, and only 180 made it in front of the “sharks,” and likely about 120 of those contestants will actually make it to air. That’s a 0.3 percent chance, making your lifetime odds of accidentally poisoning yourself higher than your odds of making it onto Shark Tank.
For me it’s reward enough just to clog up some poor intern’s email situation and meditate on the wonder of a show about millionaires being powered by Yahoo fuel. This contradiction embodies the janky high-low heart of Shark Tank,2 the isolated paradise dungeon where five of my best friends spend an hour every weekend teaching me how to get rich quick in America.
Shark Tank is deliciously, necessarily formulaic. In each episode there are five “sharks” — the investors — facing off against four bits of shark bait in the shape of sweaty Americans giving the most manic PowerPoint presentation of their lives. The hopeful entrepreneurs are introduced by a pre-taped lifestyle montage; they walk through an eerie blue faux-aquarium tunnel (the sharks in those tanks are also pre-taped); they stand in front of the murderer’s row of investors and estimate the valuation of their artisan cicada-flour petit four subscription box service at, like, $7 million; finally, they wait for the sharks to, in one way or another, break off a piece.
What transpires in the Shark Tank can only go one of a very few ways. Contestants might get exactly what they asked for (my email ask is usually $420,000 for 69 percent of the business), rejected outright, or bid down to a predatory counteroffer. In the rarest cases, they might find themselves in the middle of a Shark War of Egos, in which the sharks get mad at each other for personal reasons and then use whatever product’s on the table to fight.
The pitch segments are mixed and matched from their original marathon taping in order to ensure that (1) Kevin O’Leary never uses the same metaphor twice in one show, (2) Lori Greiner can spend the whole season in the same diagonal neckline, and (3) there’s a certain, relatively invisible balance in each episode: Usually two pitches are sent packing, and two people get firm handshakes and smiles at the end.
All of this is based on the Canadian show Dragons’ Den, which itself is based on a Japanese show called Tiger of Money, which aired from 2001 to 2004 and has subsequently grandfathered a relatively astonishing 25 licensed copycats both in countries whose commitment to enterprise make the spinoffs seem probable (Germany, Australia) as well as surprising (Afghanistan, Poland, Nigeria, Ukraine). The format’s the same in every version, but the names are wonderfully different; the Czech version’s called D-Day, the Slovenian version Good Deal, the Spanish Your Opportunity. (The Russian version is Kapital, and apparently one of the investors didn’t invest at all.) The Shark appellation is shared only by the U.S., Israel (The Sharks), and beautiful, beautiful Ukraine, whose spinoff is called Business Sharks.
I personally favor this Shark conceit. The Dragon, though much more popular internationally, is (“is”) a silent freak show privately hoarding its mountains of gold; the Shark chomps indiscriminately into whomever and has to swim continually in order not to die. That, if not the modern American Dream, is the modern American reality.
And of course Shark Tank does effectively represent the modern American Dream: flipping an incredibly stupid idea into a huge amount of money and then running swiftly away.
Not all Shark Tank ideas are stupid, of course. Just, definitely, mine. (Dear Shark Tank, can I interest you in 4squin, a location-based sex app for uncircumcised only?) But the show’s format does lend itself to one particular type of pitch (Don’t you just hate it when you’re doing THIS cool thing, and then THAT old piece-of-shit problem crops up — AGAIN? How many times have you thought to yourself, THERE’S GOTTA BE A BETTER WAY?), and a particular type of product: gadgets and gimmicks, scalable, $19.99. True innovations are too messy and unwieldy for the pace of television. One of the few products on Shark Tank to ever seem legit — Plate Topper, a plastic wrap/Tupperware hybrid — produced a record two and a half hours of negotiation (condensed for the show), a confusing escalation, and no deal in the end.
Thus Shark Tank stuff tends to fall into a few defined types. There’s “X, but for pets” (Puppy Cake, Pet Paint) and “X, but for children” (HotTot hair gel) and “X, but green” (reusable dry-cleaner bags). There’s an endless string of niche food products (branded scones, branded slaw, caffeine-laced waffles, “Mee-Ma’s Gumbo Brick,” shrimp burgers). There’s the occasional fitness situation (Diamond Dallas Page’s yoga program!) or nightmarish lifestyle service (“Baby Loves Disco” toddler raves, “Rent-a-Grandma”). Most special is the true wild card, exemplified by the stone-faced psycho in the pilot episode who came to peddle an implantable Bluetooth for the human skull, gesturing blandly to video mock-ups of a thin needle repeatedly penetrating the brain.
But the real sweet spot of Shark Tank is the single-serving, double-use gadget that you might laugh at in SkyMall but buy when you’re hungover at Bed Bath & Beyond. There’s the alarm clock that also cooks bacon, the Solo cup with a shot glass built into the bottom, the belt buckle that holds a beer can, the pillow you can attach to your head via a hood. Many of the Shark Tank products that have actually been spun into seven-figure businesses are in this category: Ava the Elephant is a medicine dispenser that looks like a stuffed elephant; Readerest is a wee little magnet that attaches your reading glasses to your shirt.
In fact, all the show’s most successful products are objects you can hold in your hand. The show’s constant grandstanding about job creation and the greatness of the US of A (never mind that the sharks are never united on anything so much as outsourcing manufacturing) goes a long way to conceal the fact that Shark Tank paints a very particular picture of American business — a homegrown idea, a handmade prototype, and soon you’re selling in Walgreens and buying a yacht! — that is totally divorced from the vaguer and much more significant ways that people make money in this country. The Shark Tank product will often neatly plumb the interstices of the tech-based convenience economy — “Like X, but very slightly easier” — but the show has thus far stayed relatively far away from Silicon Valley territory. Any amount of uncertainty about physical retail or profitability and Kevin O’Leary starts shouting the word “MONEY” at the camera like he’s throwing knives. “How am I going to get my mo-ney,” he yells, enunciating as for a lip-reader and speaking, as it were, for all of us.
Shark Tank’s ethos is more old-fashioned than it seems. But the tech version’s coming: One of the show’s casting directors is working on a Game Show Network pilot called App Wars, which will match idea men with developers. Its casting call, like Shark Tank’s, is janky. “Have an idea for App [sic] but no clue how to make it?” it asks. “This is the show for you.”
But how have we gotten this far and not talked about the sharks? They are, much more than the products, the selling point of this show. Three white men (Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec, and [prayer hands] Mark Cuban), one black man (Daymond John), and a two-for-one lady (though they’ve now started to appear on the show together, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner spent the first four seasons trading off for the seat). It’s a panel engineered to give the appearance of diversity while ensuring that the old-bro stasis is never threatened, and together they are a multiheaded monster, greater than the sum of their individual parts, which I will summarize below.
Balding, Jupiter-shaped Kevin O’Leary is the unofficial host, summarizing negotiations live in order to facilitate smooth edits. He calls himself “Mr. Wonderful,” presents as a conniving, wordy terror — contestants are “cockroaches,” “nothing burgers,” “greedy pigs” — and has the most amazing rich-dad metaphors in the game. “Money doesn’t care about me or you, but you have to care deeply to get it,” he says. Kevin’s money is an army of little soldiers, sent out to war and expected to come home with prisoners (a.k.a. more money); Kevin’s money is a kid at summer camp who better make some friends, fast.
Robert Herjavec, “son of an immigrant factory worker,” has baby-blue eyes and a Patch Adams vibe. His face lights up like a glowworm whenever babies or puppies come onstage. Informal friend polling reveals a marked divide between people who believe Robert is as innocent as an infant and people who believe he’s covering up an internal well of fathomless darkness.
Mark Cuban is the best shark because he invests the most money and can’t control his facial expressions. He also frequently gets bored and institutes a shot clock on his offers, making the contestants decide in 30 seconds or less. Cubes is low-key the savior of Shark Tank: He spearheaded the removal of the shady provision giving the show 2 percent of any product that made an appearance, whether or not the contestant got a deal. Cubes said that the “quality of the companies and entrepreneurs would decline” if they insisted on skimming. This is true, and Cubes is an American hero.
Daymond John, initially brimming with personality, has grown more reticent of late. At his best, Daymond relied on the invocation of the Boys in the Hood Business Lifehack, in which he would leave the deal if he could pay one of his boys in the hood $20 to do the product’s job better. The Boys in the Hood Business Lifehack seemed eminently sensible to me.
Lastly, the women: bland powerhouses either forced into or cast for their adherence to a constrained, feminine, precise respectability. Lori, the “Queen of QVC,” has a long, blonde ponytail and subtle hate-sex chemistry with Mr. Wonderful; Barbara’s got a gray-platinum pixie cut and a slight, friendly Jersey accent. When the producers dared to allow both of them on the panel at the same time in Season 5, Barbara stated with amusing caution that the move was “maybe two years overdue, in my opinion.” In the same interview she advised women to “walk into that meeting and picture yourself a man,” after which Lori added, “and wear a short red skirt.” This sort of oversimplified gender tension shows up on camera, and Barbara and Lori are often as openly disdainful of their male counterparts as their male counterparts are of them. By the numbers, anyway, the women are the most aggressive: If you consider the deals from that chair as a single unit, they easily outpace the other sharks over the course of the first four seasons.
All six of these sharks are thickly garlanded with thematic narrative from the show’s intro, which has them all in power suits, crossing their arms in front of a jet and a huge American flag. The voice-over compresses each of their stories into started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here: Barbara’s waitress gigs, Kevin’s basement office, Daymond literally going “rags-to-riches” with FUBU. “Self-made” is a constant touchstone, and there’s no greater sign of a successful deal in the hopper than hearing one of the sharks say “You remind me … of me.” In fact, the pilot episode — air date August 9, 2009 — even goes so far as to say, “In the worst economic time since the Great Depression, the sharks are the last chance for entrepreneurs to get the financial backing they need.”
Dramatic! And yet the show itself is so very dramatic. The contestants are frequently at the very end of their resources; they plead haplessly and bleat platitudes like, “You say jump, I’ll ask how high.” When all is going south, they pull out their greatest life hardship, and sometimes — and there’s that pesky gender difference in this — they break right down and cry.
Occasionally, these sobbing Hail Mary passes work. But usually the sharks just swim on to the next one, money in their pocket, pledging over the course of a season about $1 million to $2 million each.
After five years, the show’s self-mythologizing is thickening, most visibly in the regular “Where Are They Now” segments in which successful former contestants (“America’s biggest dreamers,” booms the voice-over) follow up on their deals. The fledgling entrepreneurs take fake phone calls in bustling offices and say things like “Thanks to Shark Tank, I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.” The camera lingers hard on any evidence of small-town manufacturing, and frequently the entrepreneurs show off new cars, fancier-looking families, even their new “million-dollar dream homes.”
The sharks themselves are happy to build up this narrative. In a promo reel for this season, Robert says happily, “We are the Mick Jaggers of the business world.” Cubes boasts that his 9-year-old now “loves to talk about valuations.” They say, over and over, that Shark Tank is everything that is good about America.
I find this sort of talk irritatingly ingenuous, but we get the wide-eyed, performative bullshit we deserve. The show wouldn’t be this successful if it hadn’t been birthed in the recession and grown over the course of years when exposure became synonymous with pay. Even before Cuban got the automatic–2 percent clause removed, contestants with failed pitches defended Shark Tank’s right to their points. “What other option do you have if you want to be put in front of 8 million people?” asked one 24-year-old, who came on the show with an automatic coat-check system that was rejected in the end. On Shark Tank, as in life: No way to make pennies other than count impressions — everything’s a pitch meeting. We monetize what it means to be seen.
But the show’s true brilliance is the way it seamlessly resolves so many illogical juxtapositions. Greed here is explicitly aligned with benevolence; calculated self-interest is the best way of achieving public good. And, America being a place with that particular fuzzed-over tension between millionaire and middle class — the former pretending to be the latter; the latter believing the former is our eventual due — Shark Tank bridges the gap with ease. Take the private jet to visit a Bed Bath & Beyond in rural Iowa. If you want to make millions, you can start by emailing SharkTankCasting at Yahoo Dot Com.
And these strange alignments ring weirdly true only because they’ve become true already. We’re broke and we’re living with the convenience of kings. Shark Tank takes a fundamental piece of the original American success mythology — “You’ll never see anyone work as hard as me” — and blends it seamlessly with the contemporary ending to that sentence, which is “until I get that yacht money and PEACE.”
So, what can you expect from the new season of Shark Tank? Here are my best guesses: something involving selfie sticks; a convenience item for music festivals; a treadmill desk for elementary school children; a mail-order artisan salt club. It doesn’t really matter. What’s comforting about the show is simply that it steamrollers on, in all of its dystopian/utopian glory. You sit, a fly on the wall, watching the dizzy rotation of dreamers trying to get their hands on some cash. You imagine that if it were you, you’d be different than that fool up there sweating, red-faced, in HD. You … well … you, kid, are gonna make it. You’re definitely going to make it. Keep watching Shark Tank and your five best friends will show you how.
Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) is a former editor of the Hairpin.