Mark Burnett produces epic unscripted television, but only sometimes does epic work with the subject matter (Survivor, yes; Rocco DiSpirito’s The Restaurant, no). His adaptation of the Dragon’s Den format into ABC’s Shark Tank definitely does work, and has actually improved on the original series while retaining everything that works.
The series originated in Japan, where it’s called Money Tiger, but I’ve never seen that version, and instead was introduced to the UK version on BBC America, which I really loved. (The UK’s sixth season debuted on BBC America last Tuesday night.) Thankfully, the US version retains everything that’s great about the UK version, primarily that each epsiode focuses on several people who pitch ideas for businesses or products to a panel of rich people, who must use their own money to invest.
While some ideas are rejected pretty quickly, both series get their best drama from the negotiations between the investors and contestants with viable ideas. And the shows really come to life when the millionaire investors fight with each other and counter-bid, making offers that frequently leave the contestants with tough choices to make. Watching those negotiations unfold is thrilling, both because someone’s dream is on the line, and because the investors clearly think they can make money off of these businesses. Should the contestants give up control of their company in exchange for experience in a specific industry? Whose offer should they choose?
The US sharks are also compelling, and it’s probably no surprise that the two most-prominent sharks have experience, as they appeared on the Canadian version. Kevin O’Leary, who sits in the center chair, is the resident asshole, typically clashing with with his Canadian Dragon’s Den colleague Robert Herjavec. O’Leary fights with anyone, often ridiculing the only female, Barbara Corcoran, who sits next to him. (In one great moment when they were arguing across her, she said she needed to change chairs.) O’Leary’s shtick–although I don’t doubt that it’s genuine–keeps things moving, but is getting old, fast; not everything has to be a fight. Of the other two sharks, Daymond John has gotten better as the series progresses, while infomercial expert Kevin Harrington, who sits on the far left, rarely enters the fray and as such is the most boring; if there’s a second season, I’d guess he’ll be replaced.
Beyond the core content, the adaptation diverges from the original. The UK version’s stripped-down set, with its clever staircase that leaves people out of breath when they face the dragons, works well, but Burnett’s set changes the game. It looks like a combination of a cable news set and a Manhattan loft, and adds more gravity for the negotiations, giving the sharks an environment that’s as rich as they are. (The makeover after the first two episodes that replaced a big table with individual chairs fixed an early misstep.) And the hallway the contestants walk through, even with its cheesy CG sharks in the fake aquariums, gives plenty of time for the powerful score to play.
There are other improvements: Shark Tank has less narration, and the host has been discarded and replaced with package segments that show the contestants at home. They’re quick enough to give some context for the person and their pitch, although sometimes that video focuses a bit too much on the emotional story than the product. There are also follow-ups in the middle of episodes to show us what’s happened with previous contestants, and that’s great.
The biggest problem with Shark Tank is its name, which is stupid. “Dragon” may be meaningless to American viewers, but “shark” in a TV show title makes viewers immediately think about Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Seriously, everyone I recommend it to says something about actual sharks. It’s also tragic that ABC debuted it on Sundays but moved it to Tuesday nights at 8, scheduling it opposite two popular reality series and TV’s most-popular scripted show, NCIS. At least the network hasn’t cancelled it yet, but hopefully it won’t give up before giving Shark Tank a less competitive timeslot–and maybe even a better name.