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Package Deal

"American Inventor": The Most Patriotic Reality Show Ever

Whoever came up with the Itty Bitty Booklight is a genius. If you've ever tried to read with a cold metal flashlight crammed under your chin or lost oxygen trying to read under a blanket fort, then you might also have a deep appreciation for the "IBBL." It gives you beautiful hands-free light that allows, say, a twelve-year-old to read all hours of the night with nary a glimmer of wattage sneaking under the door frame--and thus allows said twelve-year-old to read without being yelled at to go to sleep now young lady. And if you thought, as I did, that the IBBL couldn't be beat, I've recently seen SkyMall ads for an even more inconspicuous behind-the-ear book light, which must be revolutionizing the tiny-book-light industry with its shrewd cordless design and promise of no awkward clamping. I must have one.

But, as smart and appealing as I find these products, they would never be up to snuff for "American Inventor," ABC's televised quest for the next great must-have gizmo, whose second season concluded last night. The competition on the show is tough, as hobbyists, nerds, MBAs, teachers, single mothers, carpenters, and dudes with too many tools in the garage come out of America's woodwork to show us what we need--proving that, in fact, invention is the mother of necessity.

Of course, there are plenty of crazies. The guy who spent years and thousands of dollars developing a goofy doodad that you put on your tongue and then use to caress your teeth--because using your hands to hold a toothbrush is so last year--is not who I'd call the brightest bulb in the idea lab. Then there was the guy who took a game of Scrabble, changed the letters to numbers, and scoffed at fancy terms of art like "copyright infringement" and "billion dollar lawsuit." And it's a mystery to me why judge George Foreman--famed "inventor" of the eponymous grill--was enchanted with the parking-lot automobile locator that looked suspiciously like a very large jack-in-the-box glued to the top of a car.

While it's fun to laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the inventions, however, the truth is that being ridiculous--or even unoriginal--isn't an automatic disqualifier. As the show proves, with $50,000 and the right industrial design firm, almost any shoe-string-and-glue contraption can be transformed into a gadget that could proudly be displayed at Sharper Image, Brookstone, or even SkyMall. Got an idea but no way to execute it--like a toaster that makes coffee? Industrial design firms can make it so. After all, half the battle is the product's packaging. Just ask Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, a line of female body-slimming products, who is another judge on the show. She "invented" really tight tights. Which I'm pretty sure already existed--just not wrapped in fuchsia and stamped with a saucy brand name.

As a television show, "American Inventor" takes the importance of packaging to the next level. Last night, Gregg Chavez was crowned the million-dollar winner. The final three contestants all had good products. Single-mom Elaine Cato created a backless bra that is better than others already on the market. The second-best idea came from schoolteacher Ricky DeRennaux, who invented a software program that allows kids to create their own toy cars and planes on the computer, print them out on special paper, and then build them origami style. It's super cool and would have been a great tie-in to the Transformers movie. But those inventors couldn't hold a candle to Chavez.

As a pitch man, Chavez is handsome, rugged, and earnest. He is a fireman and walks in the yellow uniform like he was on the set of Backdraft. He cries when he talks about his wife and is devoted to his six kids. If that isn't enough to set Americans' hearts ablaze, Chavez has invented "The Guardian Angel," an automatic fire-detection and fire-extinguishing apparatus disguised as a Christmas present under the tree and as an angel at the top. He even has a compelling video demonstration and statistics about Christmas-tree-related fires--fires that kill and destroy homes and ruin lives, America. To look at Chavez and then consider the other contestants is laughable. With one puppy-dog look, Chavez practically screams, "Yeah toy cars are nice, and your boobs look great in that bra. Good Christmas presents. But what does it matter when it's destroyed in a fire and your children are dead?!" Unlike any other inventor on the show, Chavez has managed to associate himself with almost every iconic American meme short of apple pie: firemen, Christmas, children, love, life saver, family, presents, angels, divinity, heroism. In other words, if you're against Chavez, you're with the terrorists. With packaging like that, he had to win.

By Sacha Zimmerman