By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006
An appalling amalgam of humiliating ridicule, primitive humor and heartbreaking pathos, "American Inventor" flies in on wings of sap.
The series, somehow half-baked and overcooked at the same time, is partly the "invention" of co-executive producer Simon Cowell, famous as the sarcastic smarty-pants on Fox's "American Idol" -- of which this series is an utterly shameless imitation. The big innovative difference, though, is instead of three judges who rate would-be singing stars, four judges turn thumbs up or down to would-be inventors.
Some of the zany inspirations dreamed up by the contestants are inescapably funny; the first competitor zips himself into what looks like a garment bag, but he is actually demonstrating a cumbersome remedy for people who feel the sudden urge to urinate while, say, standing on a street corner. He calls it "the bladder buddy."
But the program -- debuting with a brutally overlong two-hour episode at 8 tonight on Channel 7 -- shifts gears at the drop of a nickel, following something silly with an appearance by an earnest soul whose heart and mind, and sometimes a lot of money, are tied up in a gizmo that, for example, makes it easier to shovel mud into a sack.
One of tonight's saddest cases is a woman who explains that her invention was inspired by the plight of her "mildly retarded child"; who would not be moved by this? A burly corrections officer makes such a convincing display of his desperation -- fighting back tears and delivering a dramatic monologue -- that it becomes irrelevant what his invention is. At least one of the judges fights back tears, too, and watching the segment dry-eyed will be a challenge to viewers.
Several of the inventors are "Idol"-like performers, too, in their way. They come armed with little skits, costumes, maybe a rap tune -- and they're not just working cheap; they're working free, one of the principal reasons that networks adore these shows. The contestants might as well wear T-shirts that say, "Exploit me." The boom in "reality" television is a boom in cheap programming, a golden age for greedy producers who also squeeze product placements into the shows and whatever other blandishments might swell their coffers (and, as David Letterman used to say, you know how painful that can be).
Each judge gets a flattering pretaped profile during tonight's program. We are assured repeatedly that all the judges are fabulous successes in their chosen fields, shoveling in money like -- well, like mud into a sack. Judge Doug Hall, an extrovert who fancies floral shirts, is an inventor himself and has a radio talk show; Mary Lou Quinlan founded "one of the premier women's marketing companies in the U.S." No, she doesn't market women, but she does brighten up a panel in dire need of brightening.
Peter Jones, a would-be Cowell who has made millions in telecommunications (and hopes to make more as one of this show's producers), lacks Cowell's knack for nastiness and remains sleepily inexpressive. The final chair is occupied by Ed Evangelista, an advertising executive who sounds, and to some degree looks, as if he should be hanging out at the Bada Bing on "The Sopranos."
"Ed's approach is very grounded in American values," an announcer assures us.
Ironically -- considering the show's claim to be rewarding originality -- most of the rituals also are lifted right out of "Idol," including footage of winners and losers as they emerge from the judging room, bubbling over either with tears of despair or giggles of joy. A Ryan Seacrest clone, Matt Gallant, is there to encourage excessive reactions and pour fake comfort on those who've been rejected.
There is nearly incessant palaver about "the American dream" -- how vigorously the show celebrates it and the contestants pursue it. One man pursues it with a toilet-paper dispenser that oozes soothing goo with each use. A young musician and his friends are ready to bestow upon the world a dish designed to hide unsightly olive pits. An "animal wrangler" unveils what he believes to be "the new yo-yo, the new Frisbee": a kind of miniature circus in which hideous cockroaches (he calls them beetles) frolic about.
TV producers have been getting laughs from nutty inventions since television -- itself a dubiously useful contraption -- first appeared. There's nothing new here except the hypergloss of post-production: great gushes of manipulative music, montages of winners and losers cavorting or cursing, and the crucial competition angle. Finalists will each get $50,000 to develop their invention, and the winner, chosen partly by national vote, will get a million bucks.
"American ingenuity has transformed the world," the announcer bellows at the outset, "and made the United States a superpower." Oh. What a comforting thought. Unfortunately, the show that follows seems determined to make a mockery of it -- and, of course, of most of the sad little dreamers who agreed to take part.
American Inventor (2 hours) debuts tonight at 8, then will air at 9 p.m. beginning next Thursday.