Viagra was such a fantastic name that Pfizer trademarked it long before the company had a drug to go with it, and perhaps the same is true of Steve Harvey’s Funderdome, a title so capacious that it might contain almost any kind of hijinks. In fact, the ABC show, which completed its first season this fall, has a specific and narrow focus: Aspiring inventors pitch their products to the host and his audience in hopes of winning funding for further development. The premise is hardly daisy-fresh—Shark Tank, which made the format famous, is now in its ninth season—but we have never looked to the ubiquitous host-comedian Steve Harvey for the shock of the new. His career secret is to heave his enormous personality against time-honored formulas at Mach speed, and see which ones are strong enough to survive the hit. That he has chosen to fill his Funderdome with the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship tells us that the golden age of capitalist reality television is truly upon us.
The genre began with our president, of course, who realized years ago that TV contests based on people’s ability to sing, dance, or get along with a houseful of losers on the CBS lot were small-time. The Apprentice, which debuted in 2004, wasn’t about winning on the dance floor; it was about winning where it counts: in business. The show, like so much of the Trump enterprise, was based largely on humiliation. In the first episode, female contestants, each of them a legitimate businesswoman in her own right, won the challenge of running a lemonade stand in Manhattan by offering to kiss customers. Their prize was a visit to Trump’s apartment, where they met Melania and told her how lucky she was. The premise of the show was not that it gave the victor a chance at becoming an independent businessperson, but rather that it made him or her a subaltern to the star.