[23 March 2006]
At first I wasn’t sure if American Inventor was supposed to be serious. The premiere episode opened with pictures of the light bulb and an airplane, with accompanying voice-over about the age of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, when America rose to power on the back of brilliant inventions. Surely, a reality show from Simon Cowell and the producers of American Idol can’t expect to discover a new invention as groundbreaking as the automobile.
And then judge Doug Hall dropped the gauntlet:
This competition is incredibly important. We’ve got to re-ignite the spirit of invention in America. If we don’t, in five years we’re all going to be working for the folks in India and China.
I about wet my pants at that one. I don’t speak Chinese or Hindi, and can hardly hold a job in the U.S. as it is. But American Inventor must be taking itself seriously. In the first five minutes, the announcer, host Matt Gallant, and the four judges used the term “American dream” about 5000 times, as well as platitudes like, “Don’t count on tomorrow, go for your dream today.” I saw Old Glory waving in the background. Yes, I thought, we can defeat this Asian menace.
But by the end of the first two hours, I felt disappointed. The show doesn’t even meet its stated criteria for the contestants, that a product be innovative and help “make life better.” Instead, it’s exactly like every other reality show where contestants compete for a job, a prize or a shot in the entertainment industry. The judges travel around to a bunch of cities and have people show them their inventions: some contenders get mad, some cry, and some are chosen. It’s really kind of boring.
What troubled me most of all was that, after talking about how great it is to follow your dream, the judges turned around and discouraged so many of the contestants. The show starts out like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and then turns into Ambush Makeover.
A lot of the people who appeared had apparently spent their life savings on their ideas. The judges openly laughed at them, or fake-smiled and talked down to them. The announcer said that Ed Evangelista, who “spent 11 years helping to build Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/EURO RSCG into a household name” (and how!), is “grounded in American values.” So why did Evangelista go on to tell another contestant that he belongs on the “nut farm”? And then the judges starting scolding the inventor of the Tizzy Tube, an inflatable toy that kids put on to work out their aggression, saying it’s a “prison,” a sick idea that doesn’t belong on the show. Then why did they put it on the show?
The producers helped me decide which contestants I should like by playing inspirational music when they’re on screen and showing the judges looking serious when they talk about their dreams. But the judges treat even the serious-seeming inventors pretty badly. Judge Mary Lou Quinlan told an ex-Dolly Parton impersonator contestant who made it to the second round to sing, which was kind of exploiting the contestant’s vulnerable position. Then Hall yelled at her to stop and get back to her pitch. But Quinlan asked her to sing!
The panel includes no condescending Simon Cowell or encouraging Paula Abdul. Instead, the judges take turns playing these predictable parts. Watching them critique the contestants is like being in a room of mixed message-sending parents. I felt a little stressed by their constant shifting and contradictions.
Still, I have to agree with the judges that the inventions in this first round aren’t that great. They seem like the kind of stuff pitched on infomercials: products that exist to be sold, rather than benefit society. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe the whole show is an infomercial (see also: American Idol, which promotes all those singers and then puts them under strict contracts and sells their albums). Dear Lord! American Inventor isn’t about “helping America” at all, the announcer and the judges and the host were just saying “America” a lot so I would think that whatever they’re doing must be good and patriotic.
But maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe George Foreman and Suzanne Sommers are the engine that drives our economy and what this country needs is another Big Mouth Billy Bass to shake us out of doldrums. All we need is a little faith in American know-how and ingenuity. And who knows? Maybe if I dream hard enough, I can get an infomercial of my own. No, I will dream hard enough until I get an infomercial of my own. It’s my birthright.