ABC’s Shark Tank
August 9th, 2009
I wasn’t going to bother saying anything about ABC’s Shark Tank, which debuted tonight following Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but then my brother made a pretty reasonable point: as a Canadian critic, I have more experience with CBC’s Dragon’s Den, the Canadian series based on the Japanese series that inspired this ABC series, than most. And since I’m in the process of analyzing Canadian television in my thesis, I figure it makes sense to take some time to consider just how the different sensibilities of these two countries have inspired the way these two series differ.
However, I came across two problems when I tried to do this watching tonight’s premiere. The first is that I don’t particularly like Dragon’s Den – no, it’s not a bad series, but I find that its back and forth between “look, embarrassing entrepreneurs!” and “legitimate success” to be like American Idol but without either the humour or the enjoyment. Because they’re real people, you feel bad when they’re clearly so far off the mark, and when they are successful I don’t really know them well enough to know just how much of a success it’s been. It just does nothing to appeal to me (I don’t particularly like Idol auditions to begin with), and the “cruelty” of the dangerous Dragons (cutthroat business people) isn’t really all that interesting.
The second problem, however, is that the differences between these two programs are driven less by national differences and more by economic ones – while Dragon’s Den was brought to Canada during a relatively successful period, Shark Tank was developed in the midst of an economic recession and emerges at a time when this kind of success seems legitimately rare, and where dreaming big and failing big are both staples of the American (and for that matter, North American) experience. It makes my own opinion of these entrepreneurs kind of moot, and shifts the show’s responsibility from entertainment to topical connectivity, a burden that has little to do with nationalist discourses.
And a burden the show deals with as best it can, really.
The big change between this version and the Canadian one is the slickness of it all. There’s an elevator, and a giant shark tank, and more importantly every single person gets an emotional back story. It’s a sign that the show wants to give everyone a story so that their failure or their success is an emotional experience for us as an audience: when a father losing his house fails miserably in front of the Sharks, you feel as if you’re watching a person’s darkest moment. And when someone succeeds, you want that sense of elation and success to translate through to the audience.
They’re changes that work, I feel, but it really plays into the manipulation that reality television offers: ad breaks in between deals, tense music as that moment where deals are made comes and goes, and a sense of tension largely created by these emotional contrivances. The show remains engaging because real people with real ideas is legitimately compelling on its own right, but the extra layers of shine are off-putting at the end of the day. When the offers come up in graphics, making sure we didn’t miss the pretty straightforward elements, it really is the pinnacle of Canadian series turning into glossy American concotion.
But the show at its core remains really compelling for offering a glimpse into the world of business: a young woman offering a single product is told that this may be a better licensing deal for a major company as opposed to an actual business in its own right (but gets money anyways), and the aforementioned father struggles with the Sharks’ advice that he abandon his dream. And when a successful business offers part of their spinoff business, the Sharks are quick to offer them money for the existing company understanding that they want a piece of what works before they’ll consider something new.
In those moments, the show is really interesting – I know very little about business, but these people do and I feel like I’m learning something from this experience. The conflicts that emerge are technically driven by producers prodding the sharks to be as angry as they can be, but I feel as if there are economic reasons for all of it, providing a logic to their reasoning that helps manage the series’ expectations. When the final set of contestants drops out having overvalued their business in their minds, and walk away unsure of whether they’ve made the right decision, that uncertainty is a good thing for the show, and will make this a potentially successful series. For me, I’ve seen enough of Dragon’s Den to get my fill, but I see this working about as well for ABC as it did for CBC in Canada.
- Holy tongue twister, people: College Foxes Packing Boxes and College Hunks Packing Junk became just downright ridiculous by the end of that final negotiation.
- Interesting to see a few deals made on the show, it’s clear they probably spread them out amongst the episodes in order to make them seem a bit softer. Barbara is clearly the softest of them (talking a bit too much about how the Emmy the Elephant woman reminded her of herself).
- I like that there’s a good mix of high-rolling business ideas and some smaller ones – it’s a good way to keep a sense of diversity.
- We only got one “ridiculous” one, where a man intends to put bluetooth receivers into people’s heads using surgery, but I thought it was pretty well handled on an embarrassment level.
- Love how a contestant opens with a shark pun, and the Sharks just sit there – most enjoyable.