The Great Recession has, in many ways, defined American life for the past decade. The economic wounds continue to fester, particularly among a citizenry so accustomed to pining for precisely the sort of wanton excess that the Recession’s perpetrators, who walked free, enjoyed and cultivated. Even then, there were signs the criminals wouldn’t really suffer. In August 2009, the reality series Shark Tank debuted on ABC at the height of America’s uncertainty as the unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent. It immediately became an enduring hit, reflecting our culture’s impossibly messy relationship to the one percent just as we needed a reminder about the power of money.
For the uninitiated, Shark Tank is a show where aspiring entrepreneurs bring their small businesses or ideas to a panel of “sharks,” ultra-wealthy investors looking to become partners. They present themselves with increasingly elaborate pitches, bringing along props, sob stories, groan-inducing dialogue and bits, or even celebrity spokespeople, all in an effort to stand out. They make sure that whether or not they land a deal with a shark, their pitch will air on TV, aiming for the “Shark Tank effect” to raise their profile. Recent seasons have featured sharks like former MLB star Alex Rodriguez, billionaire Richard Branson, and Bethenny Frankel. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been around since the beginning, as has Kevin O’Leary, the outspoken Trump-like king of the show who, in 2017, unsuccessfully ran to be Canada’s prime minister with the Conservative Party on a platform of lowering taxes and regulations.
For its 10th season, subtitled “A Decade of Dreams,” the show has focused on highlighting how the series has enabled the unbridled financial triumph of countless companies, from small beginnings to giant profits. Several pitches this season have featured entrepreneurs talking about growing up watching Shark Tank, as well as the inclusion of a new guest shark, Jamie Siminoff, the founder of the video-doorbell product Ring, which Amazon bought for $1 billion after all the sharks passed on the idea back in season five, marking the first time a former entrepreneur has returned as a shark. These explicit efforts to solidify the show’s legacy also come with indications that the ploy has worked, as children and young adults who’ve grown up on the message of capitalism-for-good now bring their own creations before the panel, like 18-year-old Max Feber and his product, BRUW, a simple way to make cold brew at home. “I’ve been watching since I was about eight years old,” he tells them.
When it launched in the wake of the financial crisis, Shark Tank was a reaffirmation of the American Dream, a useful reminder to a troubled citizenry that you’re only one good idea and some hard work away from Getting It All. At least once an episode, as though contractually obligated, a shark would proudly proclaim, “The American Dream is alive and well!” In 2019, Shark Tank exists within a complicated cultural milieu that offers content to suit any political sensibility.
In many ways, there has been a harsh turn in the depiction of upper classes on television, from HBO’s Succession, a deeply cynical satire of Murdoch-esque empire infighting, to the surging popularity of CBC Television’s Schitt’s Creek, which follows a formerly-rich family dragged down into the working class, riches-to-rags. On the other hand, Crazy Rich Asians, Big Little Lies, and a vast array of reality television such as The Real Housewives all continue to represent the rich aspirationally. For the most part, we’re under no illusions about how the struggle goes on, yet there’s just as many opportunities to relate with the one percent.
With all this in mind, it bears emphasizing: Shark Tank is fun. It’s easy enough to revel in its excesses, or even to buy into some of the personal stories the entrepreneurs tell, but the real bait is giving in to the sheer opulent inanity of it all. America is in what Karen Nussbaum, the legendary activist and founding director of Working America, has called a “turning point in class consciousness,” a time in which the wealthy have “gone too far in concentrating wealth in their own hands,” leaving the opportunity to organize forcefully in response and opposition. Despite this, Shark Tank wants you to believe that the sharks, millionaires and billionaires all, are our friends. They are television personalities intent on building their own brands and promoting their investments, but the show simply wouldn’t work if they weren’t undeniably charismatic, funny, and smugly savvy at what they do (not to mention the “liberal” politics of sharks like Bethenny Frankel and Mark Cuban, which might help keep some skeptical left-leaning viewers watching). It’s precisely that tension, between its entertainment value and its ostensible politics of pro-capitalism indoctrination, that makes it such a fascinating and enduring viewing experience.
In this way, Shark Tank best resembles a show like Showtime’s Billions, which critiques the wanton greed of its contemptible characters while convincingly inviting us to lavish in it, like a pig in shit. It’s enough to make an otherwise anti-capitalist TV watcher into a full-blown Barbara Corcoran stan. Like Billions, Shark Tank is aware of the importance of tone and address. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum described Billions as “dirty fun, without the self-seriousness that drags down so many of its cable-drama peers,” a “pleasingly amoral” chronicle of the ultra-wealthy behaving badly, the kind of thing Jared Kushner “would write about himself.” It’s that pleasing amorality that perfectly captures the experience of watching Shark Tank, a glimpse into the indulgent fantasy that drives so many of us and is actually lived by a select few.
Perhaps Shark Tank is a suitably absurd and ludicrous answer to the specific American trauma of income inequality and economic precarity. It lacks subversion, allowing us to react naturally to its luxuries. Watching O’Leary be a remarkable asshole has all the delightful power of Trump firing someone with glee on The Apprentice, without the attendant feeling of dread forever attached to the real-world political power Trump now wields (unless, of course, O’Leary makes another run for prime minister). As the sharks fight with each other over making the best possible deal, these titans of business dick-measuring about their acumen and assets while the snivelling peasants beg to be chosen, something snaps together. This dynamic, this fool’s paradise, is the oxymoronic pleasure center for a society built on a system we know to be shamelessly inequitable. This is the American Dream.