Friday, March 17, 2006

American Inventor

That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time. -- John Stuart Mill

Last night, I sat and watched all two hours of American Inventor, the ABC reality show created by Simon Cowell and some other guy. It is exactly the same as American Idol except with inventors instead of adolescent singers -- and has gotten a number of severely negative reviews, accusing it of being derivative and manipulative. I believe the Orlando Sentinel called it a "queasy retread." What this means is unclear but I think they didn't like it.

Everything about these reviews is accurate. The show's judges are again either obnoxious, completely inarticulate, or gushing, although their personalities are not divided up as neatly as in American Idol, and their comments are not as predictable (dog, that was hot!). The inventors, like the singers, are again the subject of mocking or gauzy featurettes, with music to indicate whether you are supposed to find this person inspiring, ridiculous, or heartbreaking. Every moment that is at all dramatic is seen eight times in teasers before the show will agree to show it to you.

None of this keeps the show from being, for me, genuinely fascinating. Unlike American Idol, which features young people (within their genre of choice) trying to sound as much like other singers as possible, American Inventor focuses entirely on individual eccentrics, something Idol only does in the early qualifying rounds and the shows cobbled together with the express purpose of ridiculing people who can't sing. Also, you learn very little about a person singing a song badly; they might be slightly delusional for trying to attend the audition, but that's about all you can feel. The situation is pathetic but little more.

It is a different story when a person has poured tens of thousands of dollars and decades of his life into something that is a pure product of his imagination; the nearest Idol equivalent would be performing a song that you spent years writing yourself. This is a situation that has an element of tragedy. Not because the idea is bad, necessarily -- most of the inventors who have spent a great deal of money do have a decent idea. It is tragic because their devotion to it has become single-minded, and they have sacrificed too much. Or because their ambition has blinded them to some enormous flaw, like extremely restricted appeal; one man (who actually made it through to the next round) had spent $20,000 on a prototype for a shovel which did work, but whose only function was filling sandbags faster.

The show devoted far too much time to making fun of people who were clearly unstable or crackpots, or who have immense ambition and no real idea, but its concept is too powerful for the judges or producers to ruin. You could see an entire life in some of these people's faces - I mean the people who took what they had made seriously. Unlike Idol, it didn't seem to be just the money or fame they wanted, but validation for decisions they had made over years and years. And you couldn't laugh at them - not without looking at the plausibility of your ambitions, or wondering whether the laughter came out of some defensiveness about your own compromises.

As I watched the show I kept thinking that, no matter how much intelligence and creativity is lavished on scripted shows, this is what they have to compete with - and although the scripted comedies might be better at provoking laughter, I can't think of any that can match the humanity of this one show, built around this fairly brainless, derivative concept. Even when they are being belitted or cut into vignettes, these people are more interesting, more alive, than every fictional character on television.

At the end of the show, a fourteen-year-old with what I thought was a pretty good invention (a ventilator that fit into a car window, so dogs would be comfortable inside alone) was turned away. He was bitter, crying; a judge went outside and comforted him, told his mother she was doing a wonderful job. It looked like she was raising this kid and his little brother alone. At the end of the show, when the judge was gone, the boy thanked his mother for helping him so much on the project; he was still crying a little, and he told her she was the best mom in the world. She started tearing up and hugged him. And I didn't care that the producers of the show were trying to get me to be stirred or sad with their goddamn schmaltzy music; it was stirring, it was sad.

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