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TV Series Review

Junk, that's what this reality series is.

Really. History's American Pickers is all about junk—what most folks would consider junk, anyway. Day after day, episode after episode, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz visit America's basements, garages and outbuildings to comb through their dusty, dilapidated contents looking for something—anything—that has resale potential.

Mike and Frank are pickers—essentially the middle men between owners and dealers. They've put in years worth of "windshield time," picking through properties filled with broken-down cars and beat-up croquet mallets. Sometimes people invite Mike and Frank over to pick: They are, after all, famous—stars of one of cable television's highest-rated shows. Other times the two still freelance, knocking on strangers' doors and asking them if they can "look around."

And then they look. And look. And look. They rummage through piles of two-by-fours to uncover a rusty Texaco sign. They'll sift through dozens of dusty cardboard boxes to locate one vintage magazine. They'll burrow into crates of oil-covered motorcycle parts to find an 80-year-old Harley Davidson fender.

It's a strange way to make a living. And even more strangely compelling to watch.

One of the things that makes American Pickers interesting is viewing all this stuff through Mike's and Frank's studied eyes. Who knew that metallic tractor signs were so collectable? Or that the rusty Triumph motorcycle in the corner was worth 20 times more than all the (to me) identical-looking bikes surrounding it?

Each object has a story, and sometimes that story is fleshed out in historical vignettes: We might learn a tidbit or two about that Triumph, for instance, or a few facts about an old soda machine. Quick: What's it mean to be a soda jerk? Once, Mike and Frank even stumbled upon a dinosaur bone.

"If there is no story, there might as well not be an item," Mike says.

But maybe the real history is behind how those objects came to be in that out-of-the-way barn or shed and, by extension, the stories of the people who possess them. Folks who gather milk bottles or vintage headlights are bound to be pretty interesting in their own right, and American Pickers takes the time to get to know 'em a little.

Even if all that doesn't sound the least bit interesting to you, it should feel fairly innocuous. And it is. Mostly. Episodes may have a small smattering of mild profanity ("d‑‑n" or "h‑‑‑"), and sometimes Mike and Frank stumble across a risqué bit of Americana—an old pinup poster, perhaps.

But then there's the issue of the haggle.

These pickers—as would be the case for all pickers—are looking to make a profit. It's their job to spot value in objects that even their owners might not see. So it's a given they'll never pay "retail" for anything they stumble across. But will they pay a fair price? Well, that depends on how you judge "fair," isn't it? If a buyer agrees to take $100 for something Mike plans to sell for $2,000, is that fair?

It's a tricky question. If I discovered a Van Gogh at a garage sale and plunked down a couple of bucks because the owner thought it was painted by his cousin Vinnie, I'd think the deal was more than fair. I paid the guy what he asked for, right? It's not my fault he didn't know the value of what he had. On the other hand, had I been the one who sold it on Saturday only to call Vin on Sunday and discover what it really was, I'd feel pretty ripped off.

Sometimes the folks we see onscreen don't just get picked: They get picked clean. And that does—and should—leave us as viewers feeling a little uncomfortable.

Still, I'd like to think that those are the exceptions, particularly now that Mike and Frank have become celebrities. Most of the people they talk with these days are probably familiar with the show, and they think it's an honor—or at least an afternoon hoot—to have their trash sifted by millions of viewers. (And even if they don't watch cable, the camera crew is quite a clue.) Maybe they'll be the talk of the local feed store for a bit, and earn a little money to boot.

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Episode Reviews

American-Pickers: 1302012
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