Who wants to be a billionaire?

Smug rich people condescend to hapless entrepreneurs on Mark Burnett's new reality show, "Shark Tank"

Published August 2, 2009 11:32AM (EDT)

Enter the Sharks of "Shark Tank" - Barbara Corcoran (Manhattan real estate titan), Kevin Harrington (king of infomercials), Robert Herjavec (technology tycoon), Daymond John (fashion mogul) and Kevin O'Leary (venture capitalist) - five multi-millionaires who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps to make their own entrepreneurial dreams come true and turned their ideas into empires.
Enter the Sharks of "Shark Tank" - Barbara Corcoran (Manhattan real estate titan), Kevin Harrington (king of infomercials), Robert Herjavec (technology tycoon), Daymond John (fashion mogul) and Kevin O'Leary (venture capitalist) - five multi-millionaires who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps to make their own entrepreneurial dreams come true and turned their ideas into empires.

Money makes the world go 'round. Maybe that's why we resent money so much. It controls our fates. It kicks us when we're down. It makes us feel helpless, especially when we're depressed and need a two-hour back massage, a custard-filled doughnut and a brand-new Lexus LX 570 to bring us happiness and fulfillment.

That's why we Americans worship self-made billionaires. These are people who took revenge on money, bent it to their will, and now they disrespect it right to its face on a daily basis by wasting huge amounts of it on things they don't really need.

No matter how much we pay lip service to the common good, we all secretly want to be like these billionaires and make money our own personal sniveling handservant. But until we come up with some brilliant product or book or scheme that we can promote on Facebook and tweet about and become instant trillionaires like everyone else who truly understands social networking tools, we'll continue to be oppressed by that merciless dominatrix, the mighty dollar.

It's so no-fair! Day after day, we sally forth to do money's bidding and win her favor! Night after night we wonder if she'll ever let us live in peace! And still, we can't help daydreaming of being free to roam the world unafraid of credit cards and retirement goals, free to eat huge plates of overpriced food and have our idle bodies massaged by a team of highly trained minions, free to gloat and brag and swagger through this godforsaken world like only a disgustingly wealthy human can!

Finally, we'll be able to give back to society, mostly by barreling around town in our luxury SUVs, blasting Dr. Dre and snorting cocaine until we bleed from our ears. When the cops hunt us down and throw us in the slammer and we pay some miserable thief of a lawyer to get us out of it, that's when we'll know we're living the dream, at long last.

Go fish!

You younger folks out there may not understand this fantasy of mine, so let me explain. Back in the olden days, when people "talked" to each other -- that's the old-fashioned word for real-time oral texting of tweets to an adjacent member of the Twitterverse -- "banks" or "financial institutions" used to let regular people like you and me "purchase" enormous "homes" by extending us gigantic "loans" that we could never afford to "pay off." Nonetheless, we viewed these gigantic debts as "investments" and borrowed against our imaginary "equity" to "create" more "wealth," which we then used to "purchase" luxurious cars and spa vacations in Belize. Instead of worrying about the whole crazy financial circus going tits up one day, we spent our time flat-ironing our hair and downloading more Chingy ringtones.

But now we all look like serious assholes! How did that happen?

Personally, I blame Mark Burnett, who, during the same time period, made actual, concrete stacks of cash by crafting parables and cautionary tales of American greed using a brand-new genre, reality TV -- and he did it all without the help of social networking tools, which hadn't even been invented yet! Incredible.

Instead of treating reality TV like the filthy whore that it longed to be from a very young age, Burnett respected it and bought it shiny things and sent it to live in a castle, like a princess. He didn't just film shows on his flip cameras like most reality producers do today. No, no, he used really good cameras and hired people who actually knew how to use them. He also hired experienced editors who knew how to cut together a proper narrative, one that might pound home the same moral over and over again: Greed corrupts. Meanwhile, Burnett spent his time, like all unbearably wealthy humans do, getting his ears waxed and drinking fantastic wine and bedding optimistic nymphs and marveling over the countless charms of artisanal cheeses.

But apparently Burnett has grown bored watching his money grow, so he's back with a new televisual morality tale, this one a direct and firm "Nanny nanny boo boo" to those who have dared to try to create towering stacks of cash without the superior wisdom and insights and crafty business acumen of Burnett himself. Burnett rightly recognized that America was filled with such struggling fools -- misguided entrepreneurs and inventors, armed with foolhardy business plans and no real understanding of marketing (or the market system, for that matter), borrowing against their houses and their retirement plans just for a chance to do right by their kids, mostly by speeding around town in a luxury vehicle, bleeding from every orifice.

Interestingly enough, Burnett sold his new TV show to ABC, aka the Lady-Scented Network, revealing that the man knows us even better than we know ourselves: Ladies love obsessing about money. This time, though, Burnett threw out the costly extras -- the pricey cameras, the high production values, the tasteful, subtle sets -- instead favoring a look and tone roughly similar to that of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or "Deal or No Deal," but with some cheap voice-over talent in place of the pricey interpersonal stylings of your Regis Philbins and your Howie Mandels. He employed background footage of his contestants that looked like it was cobbled together from interviews shot on some personal assistant's cellphone, interspersed with stock footage of ducks milling about a pound in Anywhere, USA. The concept, roughly Billionaire Assholes Give Aspiring Billionaires Wedgies, Make Them Weep Into Their Hands, was obviously a sad souvenir from some long forgotten time, a weak little shout-out (remember those?) to the easy money and "Greed Is Good" mentality of the post-dot-com-crash boom. (It's telling that America's financial high points sound like the script of a particularly lively skit from "Zoom.")

And yet, ABC's "Shark Tank" (premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9) is easily the best new reality TV show to air this summer (which, admittedly, isn't saying much). Despite the rewarmed concept ("American Inventor," anyone?), the bad set, the cheap voice-over and almost everything else, Mark Burnett still knows how to do one thing really well: Find ordinary people who are uniquely qualified to hold forth in front of the camera.

For "Shark Tank," which is apparently an adaptation of a popular Japanese series called "Dragons' Den," Burnett brings face to face two groups of people whom we Americans can never get enough of: 1) billionaires who think they know everything just because they're rich, and 2) regular people who want to be billionaires, but who are missing some crucial piece to the puzzle, whether it's a solid business plan, adequate start-up capital, savvy marketing ideas or just common sense.

Now, the ugly secret is that most of us long to be demeaned by a really condescending billionaire. We want him or her to tell us exactly why we're working like dogs instead of sniffing fantastic wines and appreciating artisanal cheeses right now. Where did we go wrong? Is it the unprofessional image we project, with our frizzy hair and our Chingy ringtone? Or is it the fact that we can't get out of bed in the morning without picturing the cheese Danish we're going to buy ourselves as a reward for getting out of bed in the morning?

The nice thing about most billionaires is that they're self-important assholes, and therefore will never hesitate to tell regular non-billionaires about the sorry choices they've made to get where they are. But Burnett's team of billionaires -- henceforth known as "sharks" -- are special. These are people who make us want to be billionaires all the more, because they're charismatic and quick-witted and unapologetic but also surprisingly diplomatic. These are people who shamelessly congratulate themselves on their own genius, but do it in a way that we're confused into thinking someone else said it. They're like expert ventriloquists whose dummies blow smoke up their asses every few seconds. 

Even as we're told that Kevin O'Leary started a software business in his basement that he sold for $3 billion or Barbara Corcoran built an enormous real estate empire using only a piece of already-chewed bubble gum and a plastic replica of the Empire State Building, we immediately recognize that these people's most notable talent is not their enormous, unyielding belief in themselves, but their ability to make other people believe in them. They have the right look in their eyes. Their tone of voice is half radio announcer, half priest. They're impeccably groomed -- groomed not just for TV, but for the handling of enormous stacks of cash. Yes, yes, Kevin Harrington is the "king of infomercials," Daymond John created a trillion-dollar, international clothing company from a $5 bill he found in the gutter, Robert Herjavec formed an Internet company from stray pennies and sealing wax, then sold it for quadrillions. We instinctively recognize that those facts are beside the point entirely: These human beings are plainly better than us in every way, and we long for them to explain why, in detail, so we can feel even shittier about ourselves than we already do.

This is what the aspiring businesspeople who enter the Shark Tank want, too. The entrepreneurs, a mix made up of roughly one part charming underdogs to two parts hopeless losers, present their businesses or business ideas to the panel of sharks (billionaires) and the sharks either invest their own money (which is sitting right in front of them in great big piles, naturally) and own a stake in the businesses, or they tell these people why they're deluded idiots who should go home penniless and start searching the want ads for a new profession.

But no one leaves until they leave it all on the floor of the Shark Tank – and by "it all" I mean their hopes, their dreams, their dignity, everything. Hell, even the more successful business owners who enter the Shark Tank have their low moments. Take Tod Wilson, a guy who makes delicious-looking pies out of a small store in Somerset, N.J. When Tod tearily recalls how he took too many risks in his pursuit of success and "spent the next four months living in my car," Kevin interrupts him: "Tod, never cry about money. It never cries for you." Kevin, the Simon Cowell of "Shark Tank," disrespects money so much that he puts words into money's mouth whenever he feels like it.

"Kevin's wrong," says Robert, the Robert Wagner of "Shark Tank." "If you're emotional and you're great at something, the money will follow."

"I don't get emotional about money," says Kevin. Money is Kevin's little bitch.

I'm immediately envious of Kevin. I am money's needy girlfriend, the one who wastes all her time wondering why money doesn't call more often. I can't face the fact that money is just not that into me.

Next up is Darren Johnson, the inventor of the Ionic Ear. The Ionic Ear is basically a cellphone that you get surgically implanted into your ear. As soon as the sharks figure this out, they're chortling openly, right in Darren's face. How do you charge that thing? One of them wants to know.

"Well," Darren explains, "you plug an AC cord into your head every night, of course."

Robert's not sure he heard that right. "You stick that needle into your head every night to charge it?" Yes, replies Darren. That's exactly what you do.

"What happens if you miss, Darren?" asks Kevin.

"You can't miss," says Darren. Meaning you can't miss without electrocuting yourself?

"How do I do an upgrade? I go back and get another operation?" asks Robert.

Yes, it seems you'll need another operation if you want a better phone. But who among us doesn't crave unnecessary surgical procedures, paired with electrical cords sticking into our heads every night for the rest of our lives?

"The first time you heard of breast implants, what did you think?" asks Darren, trying to gain control of this sinking ship.

"I love it!" shouts Daymond, and all of the sharks are reduced to hysterics.

Next we have Kevin Flannery from Cary, N.C. (Apparently Kevin lives very close to some ducks and a pond that look remarkably similar to the ducks and ponds in Somerset, N.J.) Kevin has developed something called Wi Spots – hand-held screens that sit in the waiting rooms of doctors' offices and spit out games and "content" (red flag!) and also lots of advertising, so that bored patients can learn about Chef Boyardee products instead of sitting around doing nothing. Immediately, a mere ignorant bystander can see that even if this is a good concept (which looks unlikely), it's not something that Kevin has patented or owns or is even the ideal person to develop.

This is the point where we all think of That Friend, the one who always has a "brilliant" idea that he has no patent for, doesn’t understand and has never really researched. Or, if he has spent time on it, he only did the fun stuff (Package design! Cool product names!) and never learned the basics of balance sheets and profit margins and all of that other crap. Now, granted, we don't know anything about that stuff, either, but at least we know that we don't know anything and therefore wouldn't waste our time and energy on something that depends on said knowledge, so that we can dedicate most of our time to daydreaming about cheese danishes instead.

This is what I love about "Shark Tank." You get to see the same look of recognition on the faces of all the sharks at the same time, as they simultaneously realize (a few seconds before you do, typically) that this product or business concept is hopeless or overvalued or just ill-conceived. These people understand the basics of business, and they're more than happy to drop their knowledge on the confused humans standing before them -- or congratulate them and throw money behind their concepts, occasionally even outbidding each other for the chance.

Sadly, though, Kevin's story goes from funny to tragic in seconds. "I left my previous position so I could put all of my time, energy and effort into Wi Spots," he says. Then he explains that he funded his business by mortgaging his home twice, cashing out his kids' college accounts, emptying his 401K, and putting a ton of debt on his credit cards.

The sharks cringe. It's time for the Simon Cowell shark to interrupt. "Stop right there," Kevin the Shark tells Kevin the Naive Pilot Fish. "I'm going to do you a huge favor. Here's how I think of my money: Soldiers. I send them out to war every day, I want them to take prisoners and come home so there's more of them. Your army, every soldier dies that you send out every day."

Hmm. Let's see. So he's saying ... Be more of a demeaning sergeant to your money, and less of a mourning widower?

The lessons of "Shark Tank" are not always crystal clear, but the moral is: You'll never be a billionaire unless a billionaire takes you under his wing and demonstrates the proper ways to insult, demean, ridicule and torment your money into submission. In other words, "Shark Tank" is "The Rules" for the wannabe rich: You let your money know that you're too busy and important to care all that much about it, and suddenly more and more money is following you around, trying desperately to get into your pants.

Mark Burnett knows television. And just as these haughty billionaires have earned the right to laugh in the faces of those who would dare to reach for the tall dollars, so, too, has Mark Burnett earned the right to laugh in our faces as he produces for us yet another cautionary tale of greedy excess (this one produced on the cheap, it being a recession and all, to keep profit margins meaty). Mark Burnett knows television and he knows us, and "Shark Tank" is chum for the poor man's soul. 

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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