TV: In ‘Quirky’ reality, everyone invents but nobody makes

August 29, 2011

Sometimes it’s the most sunshiny, optimistic reality shows that wind up being far more irritating than the shows about temperamental, brawling housewives. That’s certainly the case with Sundance Channel’s well-meaning but unsettling new series “Quirky,” which chronicles the goings-on of a small Manhattan company called Quirky that helps — and in many ways exploits — hopeful inventors of consumer products.

Meant to celebrate innovation and entrepreneurial can-do spirit, “Quirky” (premiering Tuesday night) instead eerily reflects the vapidity of the American economy and employment picture, where ideas trump labor and success is measured by top-level paydays instead of actual toil. Hipsters invent, while Chinese labor manufactures and shoppers mind­lessly buy.

It works like this: People with nifty but not terribly essential product ideas (a flexible power strip that bends to accommodate oversize chargers; a can opener that works like a jar lid; a dog collar that glows in the dark; a colander that doubles as a serving dish — picture all that clever junk you see in airplane catalogues and at the Container Store) go to Quirky’s Web site and submit their ideas. For this privilege they also pay a small fee ($10), something “Quirky” neglects to report.

The good ideas are then put to a vote — first among Quirky’s staff of designers, marketers and executives, then among a social network of Quirky’s online “influ­encers.” The inventors of winning ideas are then brought to New York to chime in on Quirky’s sketches and prototypes. At some point (the producers of “Quirky” also believe this wouldn’t be interesting to show us), legal contracts are signed. Orders then stream in, factories fire up and, voila, you own another cutesy kitchen gadget.

The show stars Quirky’s 24-year-old chief executive, Ben Kaufman, a sort of happy-go-lucky huggy bear who, according to his company bio, conceptualized a line of iPod accessories when he was a senior in high school — a project that was bankrolled by his parents. That initial success forms the laid-back, trust-fund atmosphere of the Quirky offices, where smarties with art and industrial design degrees try to make sense of what their online inventors have suggested.

The colander lady, for example, blows in from Pittsburgh with all sorts of demands for how her product should look and feel and no dis­cern­ible skills for making the colander herself. Here begins the fascinating yet depressing ooze of the horrible, horrible compromise inherent in capitalistic teamwork — and soon it’s hardly apparent why Quirky even needs her. The idea is barely, nominally hers anymore. (“See how important your dreams are?” her husband effuses to their toddler when Kaufman arrives at their house with a lovely, finished prototype.)

Worse still is when the can-opener guy — a young, suburban dad from Kansas City — is informed that his idea defies the laws of physics. The hardest-working heroes of “Quirky” — the engineers and designers — nevertheless set about trying to make his dream go, egged on by Kaufman, who doesn’t seem like much of a wiz himself.

It’s all kind of a downer, especially when one of the show’s few grown-ups (the chief financial officer) Skypes in from China’s Guangdong province with real-world concerns about costs per unit, shipping delays and factory manpower — the things we used to handle domestically and can no longer be bothered with. That’s because we’re too busy putting our highly priced educations and brilliant minds together toward a more perfect, more cool-looking dog leash. Sooner or later, we’re going to run out of people to sell it to.

Quirky

(one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Sundance Channel.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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