Here come the recession shows.
The first of several new series attempting to squeeze ratings lemonade from the country's economy of lemons, "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett's "Shark Tank" arrives Sunday on ABC at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT with a timely premise: Five self-made billionaires offer their own personal stimulus packages for average Americans with promising business ideas.
Brisk, sharp and surprisingly emotional for what essentially is a series of venture-capital-investment interviews, the show -- based on the Japanese format "Dragons' Den" -- balances the human element of its wish-fulfilling conceit with at least the illusion of the business legitimacy that made Burnett's "The Apprentice" such campy fun.
Production values are predictably high, given Burnett's involvement, but this is a stripped-down, TARP-era spectacle.
Whereas the wannabe Apprentices explored the New York jungle trying to curry favor with Donald Trump, the entrepreneurs here calmly enter the show's single-room set, we get to know a little about them, they argue the merits of their business plan and the "sharks" bargain over whether to invest.
That's it. No weekly elimination, no traditional reality conflict or week-to-week story lines. Omarosa would be bored to tears.
But viewers of "Shark Tank" won't be, at least not at first. The panel might lack the heft of a standout, name-brand business icon, but the quintet manages to come across as well-meaning and cutthroat -- after all, we're told, they're just in this to make money.
Grating, dollar-worshipping software mogul Kevin O'Leary clearly is meant to be the standout Simon Cowell, but his attempts at catch-phrasing ("Don't cry about money, it never cries for you") mostly fall flat. It's empathetic technology exec Robert Herjavec and real estate maven Barbara Corcoran who come across as the more complex, compelling TV personalities. Casting likable contestants has helped as well. After getting to know Tod Wilson and his fledgling sweet potato pie business, we care whether he can persuade a shark to help him make his dream of taking it national come true.
That audience investment is "Shark's" biggest strength and weakness. Although the format admirably echews the oft-repeated elimination conceit that Burnett pioneered with "Survivor," it's unclear whether a steady parade of new entrepreneurs still will be interesting after a few episodes.
Producers likely will need to broaden the canvas, hopefully following some of the more interesting entrepreneurs as they try to make the most of their shark money. In fact, watching mismatched business partners try to work together might give this promising concept the investment of drama it needs to succeed.