What I’m watching: UK shows Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice

While there’s enough U.S. reality TV to keep my DVR warm, there are two non-American shows that have made their way into my weekly viewing. First is The BBC’s Dragons’ Den, which is coming to the US as The Shark Tank and is in production on a pilot for ABC. Right now, the original UK series is airing on BBC America.

During each show, multiple people pitch their business ideas or inventions to five “dragons,” who are essentially rich investors and business people. They ask questions and then decide whether or not they want to invest in exchange for a stake in the company. That’s it, so it is essentially ABC’s American Inventor without anything except the auditions, which were the only part of that show worth watching. Despite being very stripped down–the set is just an essentially empty room with some stacks of cash on tables in front of the dragons–it’s fascinating to watch.

Sometimes the dragons just tear the person’s idea apart; sometimes they offer money but want a greater stake in the business; sometimes they join together and make joint offers; other times, they fight each other to invest. They’re the stars and make the show work, so whoever Burnett gets will be key to the series’ success. I’d guess at least one, perhaps American Inventor judge and producer Peter Jones, will show up on the U.S. version.

The UK version has apparently resulted in few actual investments even after offers were accepted, since the deals fall apart during the due diligence period that comes after the cameras turn off. Still, there’s actual consequence and real drama to the process, and it’ll be a great show, unless the bastardize it for the U.S., like Fox did to Kitchen Nightmares.

The reverse can actually happen, as is evident on the first season of the UK’s Apprentice, which is now airing on CNBC, at least whenever CNBC feels like broadcasting it.

For some reasons, nearly all UK shows look to me like they’re from the 1970s; maybe it’s the color correction, or the editing, or just something about the tone. Here, the music is thin and weak, and it’s remarkable how much that elevates Trump’s version, as does the dramatic editing, which is missing. Overall, the UK version just comes across like it aired a decade after the U.S. one, rather than debuting more than a year later.

The other problem with it is that the candidates are too weak. Like their U.S. counterparts, they’re often incompetent and make dumb decisions, which is fun, but the difference is they’re very reluctant to call each other on it. We don’t need artificial drama, but they’re too non-confrontational. And there’s something about the editing that makes it seem like we always miss the good moments, particularly in the boardroom–or perhaps they just don’t occur.

I keep watching hoping it’ll get better, but I’m growing convinced that it just lacks the teeth of the Trump version, which is too bad since Trump’s counterpart, Sir Alan Sugar, is an interesting character. He’s just underused, and he doesn’t own the show in the same way that Trump does, because while he says confrontational things in the boardroom (and outside of it), he offers even less rationale than Trump. Having a non-Trump Trump would have been where this show could have excelled, but unfortunately, it just ends up being a weak knock-off.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.