Show is appealing invention

Contestants bring their creations to ABC's `American Inventor'


American Inventor, a new television contest to find the next George Foreman Grill, is not the first of its kind - the USA Network's Made in the USA, which ran last year, was essentially the same show. But it's the first to come with the imprimatur of the world-devouring American Idol, whose Simon Cowell is a producer, and backed by the awesome might of the American Broadcasting Co. and boasting the power of a million-dollar purse.

It begins tonight in a burst of patriotic narration, celebrating our native know-how even as judge Doug Hall warns: "We've got to reignite 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."

You can take that jingoism with a grain of salt, given that the series is largely the work of Britons - producer Cowell and telecom millionaire and series co-creator Peter Jones, who's also a judge - and that its aim is not so much to close the growing science gap or markedly improve the human condition as it is to discover, according to the contest rules, "a new and useful consumer product or service that can be produced, marketed and sold in high volume directly to consumers through retail outlets."

That is, to make a lot of money - generally what is meant by the phrase "the American dream."

Indeed, if you read the contest rules you will find that possibly the most interesting invention on display here is the show itself, which has been explicitly designed to get its investors all their money back. That's because the million-dollar prize is actually "an advance against future royalties" on the sale of the invention, whose "exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license" is assigned to ABC and the show's producers.

These people are no fools.

As in American Idol, the early episodes are largely dedicated to making fun of the less-qualified contestants. Each signs a waiver stating that he or she understands "that my appearance, depiction and/or portrayal in the program may be disparaging, defamatory, embarrassing or of an otherwise unfavorable nature which may expose me to public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation."

Even so, the hopefuls come, some dressed as if for Let's Make a Deal, toting their Bladder Buddy or Tizzy Tube or Space Beetle Utopia.

We see such inessential innovations as "the long-awaited modification to the guitar input jack" and "arm shades to prevent premature aging spots." ("You've invented ... sleeves.") There's the Sackmaster 2000, whose name belies its usefulness: A one-man sandbag-filling tool, it's simple and elegant, and if it won't be in every home in America next year, give global warming a little time.

Judges Hall (an inventor) and Jones are joined by marketing guru Mary Lou Quinlan and ad exec Ed Evangelista. Unlike American Idol, where Cowell is the designated buzz killer, the four take turns at being nasty and nice, and sometimes more. Quinlan, in fact, can get positively teary.

But then so could I.

I was often moved by the dedication and heart on display, and the ranges of age, size, color and class of the contestants.

Some have sold their homes, brought themselves and their families to the brink of ruin in pursuit of their Big Idea - which, depending on the idea and what is ultimately made of it, we will finally regard as either admirably persistent or horribly sad.

Robert Lloyd writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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