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May 2, 2011
Paul Asay
One Man's Trash Is Another Man's ... Television

One Man's Trash Is Another Man's ... Television

When folks say the tube is full of junk these days, they ain't kiddin'.

Flick on the family television, and you'll find a veritable steamer trunk full of shows loaded with other peoples' cast-offs. Some come with the highbrow approval of PBS (Antiques Roadshow). Some slum on History Channel (Pawn Stars, American Pickers) or A&E (Storage Wars). They play on our natural curiosity, our love of stuff and, I suspect, a curiously American fondness for deal-making. And they're proliferating like dust bunnies in your grandmother's attic.

In theory, you could spy a weird, antiquarian "circle of life" scenario playing out across the networks: Widget is salvaged from dusty barn on American Pickers. Widget is auctioned off to the highest bidder on Auction Kings (Discovery Channel) or Auctioneers (TLC). Bidder, experiencing buyers' remorse, sells widget on Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn (truTV) or Pawn Queens (TLC). New buyer tosses widget into a storage locker and forgets about it. Storage facility manager auctions the locker's contents off on Storage Wars. Buyer, thinking widget is worthless, throws it into a dusty barn where … well, you get the idea.

Junk Junkie
In a blog I wrote a little over a month ago ("There's a Lot of Junk on Television … Literally"), I confessed a certain fascination with these shows. Part of it may stem from my love of history: I think nearly everything gets better with age (including me). I'm intrigued by the idea that real people (like me, only richer and smarter) can buy a book signed by Charles Dickens or sell a sword owned by a Civil War cavalryman. And such activities seem to help bring history just a little closer to me. But, in truth, I also just like junk. Anyone looking at my desk would know that immediately. Sifting through the flotsam left in an abandoned shed is my idea of a good time. It's a little like treasure hunting.

But I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an element of greed alloyed in there, too: The idea that someone's broken, battered trash might actually be worth something makes me wonder whether all my old Matchbox cars (or my pair of antique spectacles or small collection of 19th-century books) might make me a fortune on eBay someday. Even if I'd never actually sell the items in question, it'd make me feel curiously satisfied to know someone might want to buy 'em. So I'm always a little let down when I find out that my dusty ol' 1915 herbal reference book is worth significantly less than the 50 cents I spent on the thing at Goodwill.

And that means these TV shows allow me to live vicariously through folks who have stuff with real value.

"Watching these shows is like watching the lottery," Wendy Woloson, author of the book In Hock: Pawning in America From Independence Through the Great Depression, told California's Visalia Times-Delta. "People like discovering treasures and wondering about the value of what they own."

The shows also come with a bit of a spiritual undertone, by the way: No matter how worthless something may seem, it has value, and it can be redeemed. But I'll not press that point too far. Because at the end of the day, we're talking about a celebration of stuff—the sort of stuff that we're told not to bother with.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Storage Shed
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth," Jesus tells us, "where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal."

Christians are repeatedly warned about getting too caught up with stuff. That we're just visitors here, and we can't pack up a bunch of souvenirs to take back to the place where we really belong.

This is a particular issue for those of us who live in the United States, where it's considered almost a patriotic duty to buy, buy, buy. We're encouraged from the time we're in diapers to overvalue things—to embrace our collection of snow globes or run out and buy every last iGizmo that might pop up on a Google search. Some scientists say we can literally love our stuff—sometimes spending more time and money on our cars and computers and guns than we do on our spouses and kids and friends.

That doesn't mean, I don't think, that it's a horrible thing to be fond of your comic book collection or appreciate your heirloom china or even show off your cool new smartphone. It's just when we begin to see this stuff as more than "stuff"—when it becomes our treasure, when we value it beyond a reasonable measure—that it becomes a real problem. Because these man-made baubles really give us nothing but transitory pleasure, false and fleeting. It is, spiritually speaking, garbage.

Watching these shows, if we're careful to think while doing so, we get an inkling of why Jesus warned us to hold on to this junk so loosely. While the programs themselves are rarely troublesome on the surface (beyond some stray mild profanity), drilling down a bit might leave you feeling a little uneasy. Because when a picker or pawn broker buys a valuable collectable, the sellers are inevitably losing something of value. And that can inject these shows with a sometimes disheartening sense of Darwinian competition: There are winners and losers, and sometimes the losses are painful indeed.

American Pickers, one of cable's highest rated shows, has been accused on occasion of duping the elderly packrats that own most of the old barns and basements stars Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe visit. They might buy an old sign for $20, knowing a collector will give 'em $80 for it—a nice markup for the intrepid dealers, but not such a great deal for the original owner. This vibe is so pronounced that some bloggers have called the show "American Shysters" and accused its stars of bilking clueless, starstruck hoarders.

Many of the folks American Pickers deals with are as savvy and knowledgeable about their wares as the pickers are themselves. But the bloggers' complaints can't be completely discounted—and one wonders whether the ever-present camera crews exert their own, unacknowledged pressure on sellers to cut sweetheart deals for History Channel's sweetheart stars.

Selling Broken Dreams
And even when people walk into pawn stores and auction houses explicitly looking to sell something, there can be an undercurrent of loss. These folks are getting rid of items that, often, have more than just financial value to them. In Auction Kings, a Johnny Cash fan wants to sell off a guitar signed personally by the man in black to raise some cash to finish a book—and cries when it's sold. In Pawn Stars, sellers try to find a fair price for everything from a set of heirloom dueling pistols to a collection of more than 1,000 Transformers toys.

But it's unlikely they'll get it.

"Time and again, people bring valuable, vintage firearms or curios, only to be talked into values which are half of what Rick [Harrison] and his crew allege they will get for the item, after it ties up their working capital for months," writes C. Neul of The Reasoned Skeptic. And beyond that, with Pawn Stars being located in Las Vegas, you have to wonder what exactly these sellers need that quick cash for.

Behind these engaging, highly rated cable shows, then, there's often other, sadder stories lurking.

Storage Wars' full lockers are only auctioned when the "tenants" don't pay the rent—and there's rarely a happy story behind those unpaid bills. And Nikki Ruehl, who stars with Minda Grabiec in TLC's Pawn Queens, tells the Visalia Times-Delta, "I'm seeing twice the store traffic I ever did, and sometimes it hurts." She then recounts the story of a man who wanted to pawn his tool set: "He'd lost his job, his wife and his house, and needed money for food. He broke down and cried."

It's been said that one man's trash is another man's treasure. And that's part of what makes these junk-related shows so interesting and fun. But let's not forget to talk about the fact that one man's triumph can also be another man's tragedy—a truth we rarely see expressed in so many words on the small screen.