Flipping around network television on a weekend is the mental equivalent of rummaging around at a flea market. My husband and I have found wonderfully trashy gems, like the short-lived Antiques Roadshow spinoff Buried Treasure, starring adorable pixie twins Leigh and Leslie Keno, and Shark Tank, a program that airs on Friday nights at 8 p.m., and probably our greatest find.
For those of you who haven’t been at home every Friday night since 2009, when the show first aired, here’s what you’ve been missing: Shark Tank is a reality show in which five investors (the “sharks”) sit in a row of chairs and listen to start-up entrepreneurs pitch them new ideas and investment opportunities. The entrepreneurs will make an offer, say 15% equity in their company for $250,000, and the sharks will either jump on it or pass, depending on the idea. Bad ideas are a lot of fun to mock, but the show really heats up when the sharks smell blood in the water and start to fight amongst themselves for a good idea. Bidding wars, insults, and trickery ensue, until the investor leaves with a deal – or not.
In Season One we met Kevin Harrington, an infomercial king; Kevin O’Leary, a tech mogul; Robert Herjavec, another tech mogul; Daymond John, founder of FUBU; and Barbara Corcoran, the real estate lady. In the second season, the producers wisely decided to remove human charisma-vacuum Kevin Harrington, he of the timid aspect and weak-sauce deal-making. Harrington, to our delight, was replaced by none other than Mark Cuban – the Cubes himself!
Well, this television household was thrilled, I can tell you that.
The moment Cuban entered the scrum, 50 percent of the deals were headed his way, with entrepreneurs consistently choosing Cuban’s over any other offer on the table. Because who doesn’t want to work with the “outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks” (as the show’s announcer describes him)? Nobody, that’s who.
Suddenly the sharks became defined in great part by their relationship to Cuban, who was now the arbiter of all things Tank. Even the entrepreneurs seemed to snap to attention in his presence. It was amazing to watch the Alpha male silence just about everyone in the room, from evil O’Leary to sanctimonious Herjavec. He crushed them all just by being there.
But the most interesting development I’ve noticed in Season Three is not in the show itself, but in its revelations of Mark Cuban’s character. Cuban is a ruthless businessman, let there be no doubt of that. But he also reveals himself to be a surprisingly moral being, one mostly defined by his hatred of patent law.
I first noticed this strain of humanity in Cuban on an episode in which entrepreneur Ryan Naylor tried to peddle watches charged with negative ions. Cuban’s expressive face registered disdain from the moment Naylor started speaking. He squirmed as the watch-peddler demonstrated his products supposed benefits on Lori, who claimed her “balance” was “restored” by the product. Naylor passed out watch samples to each of the sharks, but Cuban refused (politely). “It’s okay,” he said, waving his hand.
“But it’s Dallas Mavericks blue,” protested Naylor.
“It’s okay,” Cuban repeated. “You keep it.”
“Mark, are you allergic to positive/negative ion stuff?” inquired Herjavec.
“No, I’m allergic to scams.”
He’d seen people try to peddle watches like this to some of the Mavs, and they simply did not work, he said. “Seriously, this is not new. What you just experienced is the placebo effect,” he told Lori. “There’s athletes that wear it, it’s not proven, it’s a joke, it’s a scam, it’s not real, I’m out.”
Lori had no moral qualms about a product that didn’t work, nor did Kevin. Where she got hung up was on the lack of independent laboratory testing. She called it a liability nightmare and opted out.
Kevin, typically, had no qualms about scamming people. In a delicious twist, he told Naylor he would only invest if he admitted it was a scam – a diabolic deal that actually makes Kevin one of the most philosophically interesting characters on the show, if only because he is so consistently venal and amoral and seems to delight in it. O’Leary may be the world’s most committed atheist, as he seems to fear no divine retribution whatsoever in this life or the next. But Cuban couldn’t even stomach watching that happen: he declared he’d personally beat the crap out of Kevin if he invested. When Naylor left without a deal, Cuban waggled his fingers at the entrepreneur’s departing form and whispered, “Bad luck, bad mojo.”
Season Three has been touching much deeper moral issues than previous seasons. In Episode Seven, entrepreneur Donny McCall pitched his “Invisarack,” a removable truck rack. McCall, who hailed from Sparta North Carolina, lost out by insisting he manufacture domestically. The sharks, ever profit-minded, just couldn’t get behind a business that didn’t manufacture overseas. Even Herjavec rejected it, even though he actually started crying when McCall reminded him he was “the son of a factory worker.” One gets the sense, though, that it was extremely difficult for Herjavec to make that call, as it was for Cuban. While Daymond and Kevin were moved by McCall’s plea to keep manufacturing in America and pump jobs back into his ravaged town, they couldn’t seem to grasp any other way of doing business other than overseas. Only Herjavec and Cuban were teetering on the edge of investing, and it was clearly hard for them not to let their emotions run away with them. In the end, Cuban pronounced, “It’s not about squeezing every dollar; there’s always give and take.” It’s the give-and-take that got him in the end: ultimately, while McCall’s was a beautiful ideal, the sharks know they cannot single-handedly change the world.
Another exciting moment occurred on a subsequent episode, when TEC clothing founder Scott Jordan tried to sell the sharks the patent for his “technology enable clothing” (basically a jacket with a pocket for your iPod and a hole in it so you can run your iPod wires through the hole). Cuban got his dander up big time at Jordan’s proprietary patent on the tech. “That’s ridiculous?” he screeches when Jordan tells him he has a patent for the hole in the jacket you run the wires through. “That’s just common sense! That’s what’s killing this country! We get dumb-ass patents that people then turn around and sue… running a wire through a piece of clothing? That’s a patent, are you kidding me? You’re so full of crap.” Cuban can’t stomach it – he pronounces it “horrible.” (On his blog, he writes about Yahoo and Facebook’s current IP kerfuffle (they claim Facebook stole their idea of personalizing pages), saying sarcastically, “This is what patents are for, right? To protect companies with original IP from smarter, faster, aggressive companies who catch the imagination of consumers and advertisers. What else could patents be for?”) Kevin, naturally, loves the idea of litigation and argues, “That’s what made this country great!” Both he and Herjavec make offers but Jordan finds them too low. In a hilariously pretentious scene, he leaves the room to make a call to Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, who’s his business partner. They agree the valuation is far too low and Jordan strides back into the room, points to Kevin and Robert and says, “You’re out, you’re out,” and strides out of the room. The sharks are stunned.
This is television, people.
If you’re like me – and, according to his blog, Mark Cuban – you can think of no better way to pregame for the weekend than knocking back with some Shark Tank and a cold one. So watch it now. Seriously. Watch it. I don’t know what’ll happen if they cancel this on me. I lost Buried Treasure—I can’t lose this, too. I don’t care if you’re a dirty hipster and you watch it ironically. I need you. Go.