Quirky debuts tonight on the Sundance Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Quirky is so full of whimsical, can-do optimism that it could become easy to hate, even if you’re the kind of person who likes whimsical, can-do optimism. This is a show about how everybody’s got an idea that could make them rich and how a kindly twentysomething is waiting in his New York offices to give them a chance to pull in the cash. All they have to do is get in touch with him through the Internet—and the first episode is filled with “golly wow!” moments where everybody talks about how crazy this whole idea is—and he’ll figure out a way to put their idea on the market. Then everybody can share in the profits and live like kings, smoking cigars lit with $1,000 bills.
But at the same time, that whimsical, can-do optimism makes Quirky oddly engaging to watch. It’s a show constantly flirting with going too far over the line and making viewers want to chuck something through their TV, but it’s also a show that really does believe in its own bullshit. And when you’re watching a reality show, it’s always nice to have a show about people who believe they can change the world and make it a better place, rather than something about rich people who get into ridiculous arguments or pregnant teenagers. Sometimes, it’s just nice to hang out with talented, well-meaning people who want to make people’s lives better by giving random people on the Internet the chance at launching a million dollar idea or by helping the rest of us plug in our electronics or strain our pasta. The world is not yet perfect. Let’s turn to the Internet to make it so!
It’s that split between the exact same elements of the show seeming simultaneously irritating and inspiring that makes Quirky so hard to pin down. Based on just the first episode, it seems like the kind of show that might have enough there to go the full six episodes in its first season. But it’s also incredibly likely that the show’s formula—two inventors pitch their products and then the people at Quirky try to turn those ideas into reality—could grow stale before the second episode is over. Regardless, within the first episode itself (an episode you can watch here), there’s enough good to stave off what’s irritating, and the show has a fairly interesting set of characters.
At the center of the story is Ben Kaufman, the young wunderkind behind the company Quirky. The basic idea of Quirky is that people can post an idea on the Internet, and the people who work at Quirky will take the ones they like best, then develop them into actual products, with whatever profits arise getting split between the company and the person with the initial idea. (In general, the show could do with a nice dose of the nuts and bolts of what makes Quirky work, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) Anyway, once Kaufman and his team have decided to pursue a project—usually narrowing down dozens of ideas to that one—they go through a fairly abbreviated design process, then build a small-scale model with a 3D printer and a full-scale model via some dude in Queens. All told, the idea pursued from inception to completion in this episode takes a little over three weeks, which is insane in the world of new product introduction.
It’s the stuff that focuses on creating new products and bringing them to market that makes Quirky work best. In the first episode, the show follows two inventors, a college kid named Jake who’s invented a kind of twisty-turny power strip, one that will allow users to plug in stuff around a big box that would otherwise hog two or three plugs on a normal power strip, and a mom named Andrea, who’s come up with the idea for a bowl that will allow busy cooks to strain, serve, and store pasta all within itself. Jake’s product is almost ready to go to market and is just going through the final steps of the approval process. Andrea’s product is at its very inception. The fun of the first episode is watching Kaufman and his team design that bowl, especially, and navigate the numerous potential safety problems with a flexible power strip. (This is something they eventually accomplish, which should be no surprise, since the product is on the market at most department stores.) Quirky aims to give multi-national product sales a mom-and-pop kind of touch, putting photos of the inventors and their brief stories on the back of all of their products, so when you buy your flexible power strip, you know you’re putting money into the pocket of some gangly kid in Milwaukee.
But Kaufman’s picture isn’t on the product, and what the show most fails to explain is just how Quirky makes all of this work. Do they do all of the initial design? Or inventors come with designs already sketched out or prototypes already built? Furthermore, what’s the split between what the company takes in from the products (after all, they handle all manufacturing and distribution) and what they pass on to the inventors? Is it different per person, based on how hands-on they are in the development? Or does everyone get a set cut of the profits? Kaufman obviously employs quite a bit of staff, so there’s got to be money coming in somehow, but the show does a poor job of explaining how Quirky works beyond vaguely Utopian ideals. Viewers barely even get a look at the Web site that brings all of these ideas to Kaufman’s attention.
And, sure, answers to most of those questions can be found via Googling. And going to the Quirky Web site is an easy way to figure out how all of this works. But if there’s going to be a vaguely documentary-like series set within the world of Quirky, it would be nice if it delved a little more into the fact that bringing a new product to market, no matter how good the idea, is tough and is going to involve much more complex conflicts than people arguing about the best shape for a pasta bowl (Kaufman’s not sold on “round”). The show succeeds best where it illuminates how the creative process involved in these things conflicts with business realities. For example, a discussion with Andrea about just why her pasta bowl might be better off not being microwave safe is one of the episode’s most fascinating moments. It’s interesting to watch these people bounce ideas off of each other; the Utopian ideals portion of the program is significantly less interesting.
It’s hard to know what to think of Quirky on the basis of one episode. There’s plenty of good here, and the characters in the show are mostly engaging. But there’s also the potential for all of this to grow very boring and very irritating quickly enough. Workplace reality shows are often difficult to make work, simply because balancing the interpersonal conflicts between staff and the simple realities of life in the workplace can be a tough blend to pull off. Quirky has mostly figured out the former, but it too often replaces the latter with belief that everything the company at its center is doing is totally awesome, and that keeps it from being great.