Noel has blogged about AI frequently in his Weekly Summer Reality Roundups on the A.V. Club blog. But I haven't weighed in at length on why I feel more of a rooting interest in this reality competition than I do anywhere else outside of The Amazing Race.
Now nearing the end of its second season, the format has been changed this year -- nearly all for the better, in my opinion. Audition rounds have been extended and segmented, so that for each city in which auditions are held, several semi-finalists are selected, with only one person declared that city's winner and eligible to receive $50,000 in development funds to use in preparation for the finals.
It's obvious why the show emphasizes auditions more than last year -- auditions, with their ample supply of trainwrecks, cluelessness, and sob stories, make great teaser fodder. American Idol has proven that the audience can't get enough of audition rounds, the more excruciating for the judges, the better.
But the change in the post-audition structure has an interesting consequence. The judges are still free to pass as many people as they like "through to the next round" -- to Hollywood, as it were -- but then, with no further contestant participation, they must pick only one to be that city's winner. Last year there was an additional pitch by all semi-finalists before the money-winners were selected, and without any further product development, that was just redundant.
There are two things I like about the audition rounds of Inventor, one of which applies just as well to the whole show. First, the show editors and producers have a pretty good sense of humor. They cut together disastrous pitches to fairly funny effect, seen recently in their condensed version of the 40-minute cooking demonstration by the guy with the "foolproof" steak toaster. Second, as Noel reported in one of his blog installments, the show rewards people who've got their stuff together. (Replace "stuff" with stronger language, if you want the direct quote.) I like rooting for competent people. I like that people who prepare, put some thought into their presentation, have anticipated objections and questions, and have thought about the market. And those are the people who tend to get rewarded on this show -- as opposed to many shows where raw talent, luck, or even the refusal to act professional get rewarded.
That being said, the final six (one from each audition city) made their pitches with their improved products this past week. Three were eliminated on the basis of those pitches. And I am not ashamed to say that I pumped my fist and gave out a few woo-hoo's and darn tootin's while watching. The wrap-dispenser guys had a horrible pitch and got canned. And you know, I didn't like their invention from the start. My mother had one of these multi-bin wrap storage thingies sitting on her counter thirty years ago -- how is this innovative?
The fireman, with his "save the kids" pitch for the Christmas tree fire extinguisher, got through, and I question that a bit. Did they ask him how much this huge, heavy system would cost? Whether it's rechargeable or reusable? And it only worked on the fourth trial.
I was disappointed that the guys with the vertical bicycle storage system didn't make it, because I loved their ramblin' wreck personae along with the fact that they actually engineered something! The judges underestimated, in my view, the need for an easy and secure hanging solution, and there were a few unfortunate hiccups in their pitch. What you hope is that their great idea has gotten exposure from this show, and that even though they're out of the running, somebody's going to contact them to get this thing on the market.
My favorite guy ever since I first laid eyes on him is the high school teacher who invented HT Racers. I love his idea: papercraft RC models. The kit has an engine and software; you use the software to custom-design your vehicle, print it out, fold it up, put the engine in, and radio-control it all over your cul-de-sac. And the inventor took the $50,000 and really put it to use. He developed three different levels of kits: for younger kids, a pop-up truck is already constructed in the package; for older kids, pre-punched paper is included for the custom-printed design; and for hobbyists (his real target market, I think), it's full customization. Boats and planes were added to the vehicle options. In my limited experience, this is fantastic stuff -- innovative, current (papercraft is huge), and really exciting.
But how the heck is he supposed to win when the fireman comes on and talks about saving lives while the faux-Backdraft music plays in the background? Because here's the real Achilles heel of American Inventor: Like its fellow AI reality competition and all its ilk, it passes the final decision on to America. And I don't trust America to recognize how cool the papercraft racers are, not when they get a weepy story about saving lives right next to it. Never mind that we have no idea how practical this invention is, whether it's really marketable, whether it can be made to work consistently enough to trust. I expect Guardian Angel to win. At least I can hope that there's a toy magnate or venture capitalist out there ready to pounce on HT Racers. Because I totally want to buy one.