Inasmuch as Simon Cowell represents “American Idol’s” one more-than-tolerable regular element, it’s disappointing to see his latest producing venture do little more than clone it. Yet such is the case with “American Inventor,” a slavish “Idol” imitator down to its initials; the minor differences are an extra squabbling judge and a more pronounced freak-show aspect. Beyond manipulative, series hits all the customary notes, seeking to find the next great invention and promising “dreams will be shattered” along the way. With the show bowing against NCAA basketball, ABC’s dreams of Nielsen glory should test the viability of not-so-new twists on this genre.
“Not so new,” actually, might be generous. A similar program, the Home Shopping Network tie-in “Made in the USA,” aired on cable in the fall, and the producers have been sued by a local program over alleged similarities, apparently prompting a change from the original name, “Million Dollar Idea.” Still, there’s scant mystery regarding the project’s inspiration, demonstrating yet again that in TV, avarice is the mother of invention.
The two-hour launch journeys from city to city, with a quartet of judges — inventor Doug Hall, ad man Ed Evangelista, marketing guru Mary Lou Quinlan and British venture capitalist Peter Jones — giving contestants the thumbs up or down. As with “Idol,” aspirants have seemingly been encouraged to argue when rejected, which is unattractive, and then look crushed upon being dismissed. The fortunate few, of course, exult and shed tears after making the cut.
Following a familiar pattern, program alternates between wacky pitches (opening with the no-explanation-necessary “Bladder Buddy”) and more viable-sounding gizmos. Those clearing the first hurdle will be winnowed down to finalists who receive $50,000 in seed money toward a $1 million grand prize.
There’s a rather unsettling aspect to this series, however, in that many have invested thousands of dollars — and in some instances mortgaged the house — to chase what are frequently utterly daft dreams. By contrast, no one viewing “Idol” has to grapple with whether also-rans are sleeping in the street to pursue their craft.
The judges prove a fairly lively bunch. Quinlan weeps in one instant and calls Hall an “asshole” in another, while Jones brings some of Cowell’s disdainful British cool to the proceedings. Given the production auspices, it’s worth noting that Cowell has also somehow managed to find a host in Matt Gallant who exhibits even more ebullience and less personality than Ryan Seacrest.
At almost every level, “American Inventor” is over-produced, endlessly teasing what to expect beyond commercial breaks and even using the driving music “Carmina Burana” to preview coming episodes. Even so, the concept could tap into the powerful get-rich-quick impulse and do some business for ABC, provided viewers can get past how hopelessly derivative it feels.
In that respect, ABC has partially retaliated against Fox for its perceived replication of “Supernanny,” “Wife Swap” and “Dancing With the Stars,” while Cowell has given us a program infused with more irony than intended: a franchise that claims to be seeking America’s next big innovation that’s produced without an iota of inventiveness.