Simon Cowell's latest invention, "American Inventor" (8 tonight, WKBW-TV), is no "American Idol."
It isn't even an original idea. The series, produced by the acid-tongued judge and producers of "American Idol," is very similar to a USA Network series, "Made in the USA," that premiered last summer.
Like that cable series, "Inventor" is looking for the next great invention that will change the way some Americans live.
Unlike that cable series, "Inventor" has Cowell's backing and, just as importantly, a network's backing.
ABC has tossed it on Thursday night, hoping it can duplicate the surprising success of another reality series, "Dancing with the Stars." After tonight's premiere, "Inventor" will air at 9 p.m. Thursdays, following four specials of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
At least "Dancing" was innovative. "Inventor" just copies the "American Idol" formula of success. It showcases many delusional inventors that make the occasional good idea seem almost as spectacular as the invention of the light bulb. After a group of finalists will be given $50,000 each to develop their products, the ultimate winner will be awarded $1 million. Tonight's premiere follows the inventors who attended open casting calls in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
While it is easy to laugh at the off-key, would-be "Idol" singers at casting calls, these inventors have much more invested in money, prized possessions and dedication, so when they are told they've been wasting their time and money it isn't as easy to laugh in the name of entertainment. This series didn't invent humiliation on TV, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch.
As in the "Idol" model, the judges serve different roles. There's four of them, one more than "Idol." Peter Jones, a bright British entrepreneur and venture capitalist, isn't as brutally honest as Cowell, but he has his accent. Ed Evangelista, a famous advertising man at JWT in New York City, has more of Cowell's honesty.
Mary Lou Quinlan, founder and CEO of Just Ask a Woman, isn't as painfully supportive as Paula Abdul, but she can deliver a good cry and a good speech.
"I don't think anyone has as much of the American spirit as you," she tells one inventor before crying.
Doug Hall, an inventor, best-selling author and radio host, is a combination of Cowell and Randy Jackson, jumping between being brutally honest and being a cheerleader.
The host is Mark Gallant, who doesn't have an ounce of Ryan Seacrest's personality.
To get to the next round, the American dreamers need three "yes" votes from the judges, who often seem to be on the same page. As on "Idol," the judges' manufactured arguments are highlighted.
In the most stunning moment in tonight's too long, two-hour premiere, Hall rejects a young inventor after saying he reminds him of himself at the same age.
"The truth is your invention doesn't cut it," says Hall, whose decision seems more based on what would be good TV than what is a good invention.
Like the early episodes of "Idol," a number of crazily dressed goof balls are showcased along with their comical inventions. If Cowell was a judge, he might break his "American Idol" record for the use of "appalling."
There are a number of inventions that pertain to bodily functions, including an amusing one called "The Bladder Buddy" that is designed to allow someone to go to the bathroom in public.
"As desperate as I may be to go to the toilet, no," says the British judge, who later notes that he isn't used to America's "fixation with the toilet."
The inventor of one of the toilet items declares he was inspired by "two words. Nachos."
So he can't count to two. Another inventor was inspired by the Buffalo chicken wing. He invented a specially designed dipper, which doesn't exactly sound like a $1 million idea.
Though there are some occasional good cries and laughs, the truth is most of "American Inventor" just doesn't cut it. Any possible success can by summarized by the "two words" that summarize America's obsession with most reality shows: Humiliation.
8 tonight, WKBW-TV
Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)