TV Preview: Tom Shales on Mark Burnett's 'Shark Tank,' Premiering Aug. 9 on ABC

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Unhappily implicit in "Shark Tank," the title of a new reality show from producer Mark "Survivor" Burnett, is the promise that viewers will, metaphorically speaking, see contestants gobbled up and devoured -- or at least suffer public humiliation.

Embarrassment remains the indispensable ingredient of much reality television, and it is indeed part of the formula for ABC's "Shark Tank," which Burnett (who also did "The Apprentice," similar to this show in several ways) adapted from a Japanese reality-game called "Dragon's Den." But what sneaks up on you this time is the genuine poignancy of the proceedings and how deftly the show personalizes the desperation and pain experienced by victims of a broken-down economy.

The premise: Contestants who seek funding for businesses they want to start or "grow" appear before a tribunal consisting of "five real-life multi-millionaires" and make their pitches. If they can convince even one rich 'un that their idea is sound, they can make a deal right there -- but it's just as likely the millionaires will, one by one, say "I'm out" until the contestant is left with nothing but a week's supply of facial egg.

Then they trundle on home, via an elevator that sits at the end of a corridor flanked by huge fish tanks in which sharks -- probably computer-generated -- swim and swarm.

It sounds gimmicky and visually tedious, with most of the so-called action taking place in a conference room. It's all those things, but the moments of misery make it memorable, as when a man from North Carolina confesses that he has put two mortgages on his home and borrowed liberally from his kids' college funds to finance the start-up of what sounds like a lame notion: some sort of iPod-like thing that plays informational programs and commercials to people waiting in doctors' waiting rooms.

This might be welcomed by fidgety patients who already subscribe to all the same golf magazines at home, but it doesn't sound like something that will fulfill a crying need. "Stop this madness" is how one judge reacts to the man's willingness to pour more and more money into following his "dream."

As the judges shoot the concept full of holes, we can see that dream disintegrating in the expression on the man's face, especially in his eyes, and it's devastating. Is it also cruel? Contestants know what the possibilities are when they sign up for the show, so they commit themselves to enduring whatever comes their way.

Most of the judges -- especially real-estate executive Barbara Corcoran -- try to soften each trouncing with a hint of mercy, but the Simon Cowell of the group, a balding tycoon named Kevin O'Leary, is brutal. He lambastes the losers before kicking them down the stairs and has no patience even for tales of hardship.

A Georgia man comes before the group seeking $460,000 for "Mr. Tod's Pies," single-portion sweet-potato pies based on an old family recipe, and when he recalls how one of his previous business ventures failed and he spent "four months living in my car," the memory brings tears to his eyes. But O'Leary not only isn't sympathetic, he's hostile. "Don't cry about money," he barks. "It never cries for you."

Hmmm. Mean, yes, but a bit of wisdom well articulated. Unfortunately, the cleverness of the remark is dissipated as the show continues and O'Leary says both "never laugh at money" and later, "never insult money." Now he's not clever, just repetitious -- a creep with the heart of a banker.

Other contestants include an earnest young woman who thinks she's come up with a moneymaking scheme based on her experiences babysitting a Down syndrome child -- a plan that is pretty cold and callous when you get right down to it -- and a pair of former frat boys who want to start a business called College Foxes Packing Boxes to supplement their already successful College Hunks Hauling Junk.

The biggest jaw-dropper is a man who thinks he has solved the problem of personal earphones popping out when one is exercising: a kind of amplification device to be surgically inserted behind your ear and then recharged at night, so you can plug yourself into the wall socket right after you put your electric car to bed. Jeepers creepers! With an emphasis on "creepers."

In a letter to critics, producer Burnett says his new show proves "how alive the American Dream really is." It sure is for him, and he's from England. He just keeps thinking up TV shows designed to exploit greed, frustration and exhibitionism and turns huge profits. He probably didn't have to pitch "Shark Tank" to many people besides himself; he's the Aaron Spelling of reality trash, though his shows, to be fair, generally have classier production values than his competitors do.

Some viewers will find "Shark Tank" entertainingly sadistic; for others, the possibility that it might succeed (seemingly remote) will be a veritable crying shame. But don't cry for television -- because heaven knows it doesn't cry for you.

Shark Tank (one hour) premieres Sunday night at 9 on ABC.

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