Watching reality television is usually either a guilty pleasure or a hate-watch. For socialists, ABC’s Shark Tank — now returning for its twelfth season — is a little bit of both.
Shark Tank borrows its format from Japan’s Tigers of Money, and the United States is one of more than forty countries to imitate the premise. Other than switching up the titular apex predator, the format is mostly unchanged: contestants pitch their ideas for often flagrantly unnecessary products and services to five wealthy capitalists (the “sharks”). Following the presentations, the sharks — including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, QVC maven Lori Greiner, New York real estate wheeler-dealer/snack enthusiast Barbara Corcoran, FUBU founder and amateur beekeeper Daymond John, anti-communist man-child Robert Herjavec, and Canadian oenophile Kevin O’Leary, who nicknamed himself “Mr Wonderful” — negotiate with contestants and one another over how much of their hoarded gold to invest, bickering about landed costs and profit margins, with frantically calculated back-of-the-envelope numbers and music cues that heighten the drama by shamelessly ripping off the Jaws theme.
When Shark Tank premiered in August 2009, the world was reeling from a global economic crisis. In response to the unprecedented loss of jobs, property, and personal savings, Shark Tank touted entrepreneurship as the remedy for working people’s economic ills: recovery means taking personal responsibility, not a government bailout. Since then, the products have only gotten more absurd, the valuations have only gotten more inflated, and the sharks have only gotten more greedy.
Sitting through pitch after pitch for everything from water balloon assembly kits to a pet-friendly cake mix, the sharks continually praise contestants for working three jobs, enlisting their families and friends as free labor, and deprioritizing their own physical and mental health. The overall effect is to normalize desperation as the logical consequence of repeated boom-and-bust cycles, and austerity as a virtuous sacrifice at the altar of capitalism. All this so they can sell America badly needed products like “Dude Wipes” and light-up shoes.
To watch Shark Tank’s new season as the country spirals into yet another financial crisis is to see how poorly these entrepreneurial solutions have aged: COVID-19 and its myriad repercussions have exposed the tenuousness of small businesses, the unsustainability of side hustles, and the peril of linking health care to employment. And, in a perfect example of failing upward, the sharks aren’t even that good at picking winners. They famously passed on Ring, whose CEO then sold the product for $1 billion to Amazon and came back to the show not as a contestant but as a “guest shark.”
Shark Tank might seem an unlikely viewing choice for socialists, like vegans watching a show about barbecue. But what makes it so appalling is exactly what makes it so appealing. Shark Tank illustrates the pernicious and damaging promise of entrepreneurship while inspiring questions about why, in a world of abundance, people are forced to put everything on the line just to survive. There’s no better show on television for emphasizing capitalism’s tendency to sell you products that create a problem, then sell you products that solve the problem it created in the first place.