For 13 seasons, Shark Tank has always walked a fine line. The ABC reality series advertises itself as the place where the American Dream becomes possible, where ordinary people have a chance to become millionaires. The series has been the source for dozens of best-selling products, from the Scrub Daddy to Ring doorbells, and every episode promises that the next big opportunity could be on the horizon.
This capitalist optimism, though, is also wrapped up in the horror of reality TV. The show enforces a strict power imbalance between the pitching entrepreneurs and the shark investors. The sharks all play characters with various levels of benevolence: the “cool guy” Mark Cuban, the money-focused Mr. Wonderful, the girl-power Lori Greiner. But the entrepreneurs are not characters; the show makes characters out of them through manipulative editing. This is a common reality TV practice, but not many shows have people talking about selling their houses just to be there, and how if they don’t win they’ll be left in financial ruin.
The bubble of Shark Tank has always relied on the viewer inhabiting a different space than the sharks and entrepreneurs. Part of the fun of the show is judging the deals being made, yelling at the people pitching whether to take it or not, shaking your head at an obvious low-ball offer. The money is fake to the viewer. The show is just that: a show.
But in the last two years of worldwide turmoil, that bubble has popped. Every pitch over the past two seasons has included a tangent on how the entrepreneurs dealt with the pandemic, explaining rapid declines in sales or a diminished stock due to the slow supply chain. These are not events that just inhabit the world of the show anymore. Every American understands a sudden shift in finances or resources over the past year.
With the real world colliding with the constructed world of the television show, it’s no longer possible to separate the two. Suddenly, Shark Tank’s insidious subtext is much more noticeable. It’s harder to play along with the deals being made as entrepreneurs break into tears over selling their home or a loved one dying. And the sharks will cry too, to prove their human like us, but only for a moment before business has to carry on.
The characters the sharks play no longer work when the fake reality of the show falls apart. Mark Cuban’s cool guy attitude comes off even more unempathetic, Mr. Wonderful seems even more callous. Even Lori Greiner’s bleeding heart feels artificial.
Reality TV loves animosity, and Shark Tank is no different. While the sharks often get into fights with each other, the most brutal are when they fight with the entrepreneurs. If they perceive that they are being dismissed, undervalued, or written off, the sharks will unleash upon the people standing in front of them. They’ll be called liars and conmen, or even worse “ungrateful.” We are supposed to side with the sharks in these fights, but there’s really no reason to. The sharks are a group of billionaires playing a game with money they could never spend in their lifetimes. Is it really such an indignity for someone who’s $300,000 in debt to be a little impolite?
The financial hardships of COVID-19 make these fights appear straight out of a dystopian novel. While some entrepreneurs have businesses that already have millions of dollars in funding, others are essentially begging for money because they are on the brink of losing everything. A lack of decorum seems trivial, and the insistence on it is uncomfortable to watch.
The pandemic revealed what has been underneath Shark Tank during its entire 13 season run: a fundamentally imbalanced entertainment spectacle that works to enforce that billionaires deserve their wealth and that it’s possible to reach their level. But through this idea the show works to belittle and humiliate the middle and working classes, to put all faults on being successful on the individual. With COVID-19, every American has seen that sometimes the individual is powerless against economic turmoil, and that lives can be ruined because of uncontrollable events.
Shark Tank can’t work anymore unless the viewer chooses ignorance, to recede back into the false reality and pretend everything is just for entertainment. Once we’ve seen through the show’s lie, Shark Tank has nothing it can sell us.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.