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Shark Tank survives by channeling Ronald Reagan

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For the 2009 fall season, ABC premiered two shows with a “rich folks meet regular folks” premise. One of them was Hank, a Kelsey Grammer sitcom about a Wall Street type who loses his fortune and has to live in his relatives’ suburban home. A.V. Club critics and others noted that Hank’s log line was a tough sell for an audience still sorting through a historic financial crisis: “Given the current economic state of the country, it’ll be interesting to see how writers try to drum up sympathy for a character type that falls on the puppy-killing side of loathsomeness,” our fall TV preview said. Hank died after five episodes, in part because of its tin-eared concept and mostly because it was terrible.


Premiering about a month earlier, there was also Shark Tank, which featured the super-rich passing judgment on small-business owners, that vague class of entrepreneurs whose godliness had become practically unassailable in national politics by 2009. Here was another show that was superficially out of step with the national mood—an originally British format imported to the U.S. at the worst possible time. Shark Tank outlasted Hank, but only barely at first—its renewal for season two was anything but a sure thing. Yet as the show prepares to wrap up its fifth year, it has transformed into a solid Friday-night performer for ABC, and its sixth season is all but assured. (ABC is already holding auditions for the next batch of entrepreneurs.)

In that way, Shark Tank itself is the sort of success story that Shark Tank loves to feature: a promising enterprise that found steady customers through hard work and careful planning. Go back and watch first-season episodes, and you’ll find that the show hasn’t changed all that much. But the tweaks applied by Mark Burnett’s production team (led by showrunner Clay Newbill) are important refinements that had an outsized effect on the show’s tone.

In the early going, Shark Tank banked on the same social dynamic—rich people bullying the aspirationally rich in a crucible of business acumen—that made The Apprentice a success in the boom times of the mid-2000s. This cold, adversarial tone had also served the format well on Shark Tank’s British/Canadian predecessor, Dragon’s Den. And if you trace the show’s lineage all the way back, you end up at the Japanese program Money Tigers, which, as you might imagine, was not bursting with warmth.

By 2009, this coldness had grown stale, and the original Shark Tank wasn’t a great fit for its cultural context. It survived, probably because viewers and ABC executives could see that it’s a well-made, fascinating show, but it required massaging to make it resonate with a wider audience. Remarkably, the producers have been able to nudge the show in a more relevant direction without sacrificing its intelligence or suspense.


The most obvious changes came in casting. The debut of Mark Cuban partway through season two was a minor culture shock at first: Cuban has always cast himself as a regular dude who also just happens to be a brilliant billionaire, and this persona conflicted with the show’s vestigial stuffiness. Cuban doesn’t wear a tie. He squirms in his seat. He plays macho head games with the entrepreneurs. Cuban blurs the line between opulent wealth and middle-brow approachability in the way that Shark Tank needed—he’s a personified declaration of detente in the show’s implicit class warfare.

QVC maven Lori Greiner first showed up in season three, and her arrival served a clear practical purpose: Greiner provided entrepreneurs a connection to the world of TV shopping, which the show lost when infomercial kingpin Kevin Harrington left in season two (addition by subtraction—Harrington was dull). But Greiner is also important because, as someone who invents and markets household convenience products, she embodies the simplest form of the American Dream. She’s a magnate who made her riches by solving everyday problems—“making a better mousetrap,” to borrow a cliché that comes up often on Shark Tank. Greiner’s space-saving earring cases aren’t inherently more admirable than, say, panelist Barbara Corcoran’s real estate riches or Herjavec’s computer security dealings, but they are a hell of a lot more relatable.


The newer, down-to-earth Sharks match a subtle shift in tone. The show still casts American business as a brutal arena in which only the strongest survive—O’Leary, Tank’s avatar of capitalistic id, is always happy to remind entrepreneurs of that (as is Cuban, for that matter). Over the past couple seasons, though, the producers have developed a complementary message: Shark Tank is getting America back to work.

The season opened by boasting for the first time of all the jobs that it has created, and it continued to hit that talking point throughout its fifth year. At times, Shark Tank even cast itself as something more like a movement. One “Shark Tank Update” segment profiled a strange made-for-TV retreat that Corcoran supposedly held at her home to educate all the entrepreneurs she had supported. The sequence was shot like a vacation video, as if Shark Tank is a club for successful people that we can all join if we’d like. And many of the check-in segments now cite not just sales figures but employment numbers as well. One recent Update took the good feelings even further, claiming that a deal to invest in an iPhone breathalyzer company was “saving lives.”


This “rising tide lifts all boats” angle on investment is hardly new. If Ronald Reagan were alive, he’d probably love to see Shark Tank promote trickle-down economics with such vigor. But there’s no need to debate the broader merits of Shark Tank economic theory here; the show breaks down if you extrapolate its conceits too far. And more to the point, it’s not a monolith. The five Sharks have varying ideas about the best way to make a buck in this world, and conflict between the panelists is one of the core appeals of the show—the other one being the interplay between supplicant entrepreneurs and powerful Sharks.

Still, the Reagan comparison fits because Shark Tank has found a way to frame huge wealth (and the pursuit thereof) in a way that could hit home with a mass audience—and as with the case of the governor from California, it has driven the show to new heights. Hank asked people to love rich folks even through they broke the country, and Shark Tank asks people to love rich folks because they make the country work. Is it any wonder that Shark swam while Hank sank?


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