Beware: capitalist sharks

“Shark Tank,’’ a new reality show, gives budding entrepreneurs the chance to make it big. “Shark Tank,’’ a new reality show, gives budding entrepreneurs the chance to make it big. (Adam Larkey/Abc)
By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2009

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‘I don’t get emotional about money, I just want to make more of it,’’ says oily financier Kevin O’ Leary on ABC’s new reality series “Shark Tank,’’ which premieres Sunday at 9. The show -based on the Japanese “Dragons’ Den’’ and produced by Mark Burnett of “Survivor’’ and “The Apprentice’’ - features a parade of hopeless naifs and deluded hotshots beseeching multimillionaires to fund their business ventures. The earnest showmanship and desperate pleas for cash should resonate in this climate of economic gloom, but ultimately, “Shark Tank’’ gives us little reason to invest.

The Sharks are a sharp-suited crew of industry bigwigs: mutual fund manager O’Leary, infomercial pioneer Kevin Harrington, real estate tycoon Barbara Corcoran, technology mogul Robert Herjavec, and FUBU founder Daymond John. Together, they fire off logistical questions and glibly tear entrepreneurial ideas limb from limb. Corcoran, a relative softie, is the Paula Abdul of the bunch. Meanwhile, O’Leary spouts flinty commentary and looks on in bemused disgust.

Contestants enter through elevator doors, past tanks of live sharks swimming in slow circles. The music thumps ominously. There’s enough basic jargon - profits, revenue, margins, equity - to anchor the show vaguely in the mechanics of real business deals, but most of the contestants are so clueless that their pitches border on farce.

First we meet Tod Wilson of “Mr. Tod’s Pie Company,’’ a once-homeless baker who has built a local institution out of sweet potato pies. The Sharks are dubious. “Who doesn’t love pie?’’ - as Mr. Tod piteously offers - does not seem to be much of a business model.

Then there’s the stiff, nasal guy who pitches a surgically implantable Bluetooth device. A nanny wants to manufacture elephant-shaped medicine droppers. A former Marine has mortgaged his home and gutted his kids’ college funds for a project that sounds shortsighted and ill-fated. Two swaggering youths request a huge investment in a company called “College Foxes Packing Boxes.’’ The Sharks launch one merciless inquisition after another.

“I think of my money as soldiers,’’ O’Leary tells an aspiring entrepreneur. “I send them out to war every day, and I want them to take prisoners and come home. Your army, every soldier dies.’’

This is the point that “Shark Tank’’ appears to be pushing: In uncertain economic times, people need reality checks delivered as swiftly and sharply as a kick to the groin. There is something satisfying about seeing contestants shaken out of their high-flying reveries, and the subject matter provides some solid insights - though grossly simplified - into the mechanics of venture capitalism.

But the show is like watching fish getting shot in a barrel. It offers up poor souls with harebrained schemes and makes merry sport of eviscerating them. There’s minimal room for us to empathize because the upshot of each business pitch - either a grim “I’m out’’ from each investor or some hastily configured deal - tells us little about whether anyone has actually won or lost. Numbers are bandied about, candidates shuffle off in a daze, and the Sharks are on to the next victim. “Don’t cry about money,’’ O’Leary says darkly. “It never cries for you.’’

Laura Bennett can be reached at

SHARK TANK On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

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