Television Critic

Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan sell things on television, famously. Mays, a burly man with a black beard and a voice that suggests incipient deafness, and could possibly cause it, is the more famous. But the cooler Sullivan -- who also produces and directs DRTV (Direct Response Television, as in "Operators are standing by") advertisements -- is the more versatile. Between the two, they have moved more than a billion dollars' worth of things that light up your house, clean up your yard, shape your body and otherwise improve your life -- products with names like Awesome Auger, Hercules Hook, Glass Wizard, Swivel Sweeper, the Stick-Up Bulb and Slimming Pants.

But you're really no one in this culture until they make a TV series about you, even if you make it yourself. “Pitchmen,” premiering tonight on Discovery, with Mays and Sullivan as stars and executive producers, is that show. But it is less a glimpse into their lives than it is an extension of such earlier bring-us-your-gadget reality shows as "American Inventor" and "The Dragon's Den." In each episode, the pair will pick a couple of products to sell, and we get to see how they sell them.

As a form of self-promotion, rather than a work of dispassionate examination, it tends toward the simple and benign. What conflict exists consists of molehills dressed at mountains. In tonight's opener, a repeatedly promised brouhaha between the costars boils down to Sullivan wanting Mays to focus on their upcoming spot for Impact Gel. Mild words of annoyance are expressed, but nothing suggests they won't be getting together at the end of the day to count their money.

Drama is also made out of their dealings with inventor Matt, who is pitching a gel-filled insole so shock-absorbent it protects his hand from the blow of a sledgehammer. (You have to wonder about the first time he tried that.) "One of the best demonstrations I've ever seen in my life!" enthuses Sullivan. But Matt wants creative input into the ad and has his own ideas about pricing.

Tonight's other inventor, Jim -- a cancer survivor living in a Texas mobile home -- has a product called GPS Pal that slots a global positioning system into a car cup holder. (His previous invention, Golf Cart Pal, mounted a propane heater in a golf cart, but "then the government took the heater off the market because some people put it in their campers and went to sleep and died with it.") Mays is wary of the GPS Pal -- "Where's the wild demo?" he wants to know -- but eminent colleague A.J. Khubani of TeleBrands (products include Ambervision, WaterSweep and the Fish Pen) likes it, and they give it a try.

As a life-makeover show, "Pitchmen" invests heavily in the technically correct idea that Dreams Can Come True. "This is when it feels good to be Billy Mays," says Billy when Impact Gel launches big; and patent holder Matt, who has been painted as a family man who risked everything, wants "all the people that are out there with a dream" to know that "you've got to rock, and you can never, ever quit." The fact that Matt's earlier applications of Impact Gel (saddle pads, hockey protection) were already generating millions of dollars in sales is conveniently omitted.

There is a more interesting and complex series to be made about this world and these men. But Mays and Sullivan know their business, and that is not what they have come to sell.


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