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Democratized "Antiques Roadshow"

By Michael Murray | TV | September 17, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | TV | September 17, 2010 |

When I heard that The History Channel had a reality show about a pawnshop, I was a world of excited. And then when I heard it was set in Las Vegas, well, I think I might have started to tremble. Oh, the stories they could tell! I imagined a bunch of characters from an Elmore Leonard novel, some in Hawaiian shirts, others sporting capes, while yet more would be wearing three-piece suits styled in the 80s. Suicidal gamblers, Show Girls, meth head hookers and Russian loan sharks would be streaming through the place at all hours, and failure, desperation and human misery would be in abundant supply. In short, I envisioned a show like “Taxi Cab Confessions,” only in a pawnshop.

Well, instead of this, I got “Pawn Stars,” which chronicles the day to day operations of the Gold and Silver Pawnshop, a 24 hour a day joint run by the Harrison family.

There are three generations of Harrison men presiding over this enterprise. There’s the father, known as “The Old Man.” He lumbers slowly about the place, wheezing gruff platitudes that are almost always a tribute to his own experience. Portrayed as little more than an old coot, he’s generally kept to the periphery while his son, Rick, runs the show.

Stocky, bald and with bags beneath his slightly bulging eyes, Rick looks a bit like the antique insult comic Don Rickles. He frequently bursts into a throaty, nervous laugh, a tactic he seems to employ to disarm his customers just before he’s about to lie to them during some point in negotiations. The last in this line of pawn barons is Rick’s son, Corey, also known as “Big Hoss.” Over-nourished and with sleeves of tattoos covering his beefy arms, he has an implacable and joyless face. He’s being groomed to take over the business, and all the typical tensions between the energy of youth and the wisdom of age are overplayed with his seniors for our viewing pleasure.

The pawnshop that these men run is n a low-slung building that looks like it might have been a discount motel back in the 1960’s. In typical Vegas subtlety it’s covered in signs bosting, ” as seen on TV!” and that it’s open 24 hours a day. As with any reality venture, Pawn Shops primary interest is in self-promotion, and so whatever promise of the authentic interior mechanics of a pawnshop the audience might have hoped for quickly disintegrates.

“Pawn Stars” is little more than a democratized version of “Antique Roadshows.” Instead of seeing a bunch of people waiting in line— as if to see the Pope— to have their heirlooms hopefully appraised by argyle clad men with accents, we get the fast food version, where average American Joe’s do the job with no affectation or wait!

Everybody is cast in a positive light on this show, and it reveals itself to be the sort of straight forward, largely educational presentation you’d expect from The History Channel. Instead of watching an emaciated junkie with a bird living in her hair try to pawn a stolen lunchbox, we see a collection of middle class people hoping to sell some family curiosity in order to pay for a daughter’s wedding or buy a new car. The stories behind the transactions are entirely unremarkable, almost flattering to those involved, and this is disappointing.

The Harrison family, although purely driven by monetary gain, never come across as the sleazy operators you might expect from the bottom-feeding position of Vegas pawnbroker. Rick, the animating force behind the operation, is articulate and knowledgeable, always offering a sincerely interesting history and valuation of whatever object is offered up before him.

The edge to the show, which is implied in the gritty dog-eat-dog setting of a Vegas pawnshop and the word play in the title, is a false front. “Pawn Stars” is a sanitized and polished depiction of a dirty business.

An ironic bookend to “Pawn Stars” is “Hardcore Pawn,” a show that’s similarly fond of bad puns. This program comes to us from TruTV, a network that promotes “actuality” rather than “reality.”

Set in the fascinating economic crater that is Detroit, “Hardcore Pawn” — like “Operation Repo” — fashions little soap opera vignettes out of the raw material of it’s setting. It’s all fiction, but it’s made to resemble a typical reality TV offering, and so, instead of getting to watching some guy who looks like your high school history teacher trying to sell a spoon from the revolutionary era—as you would on Pawn Stars—we get to watch a newly converted Muslim trying to sell piggy banks because she can no longer be associated with pork.

“Hardcore Pawn” exaggerates reality in order to create a fantastic narrative that captures our imagination, while “Pawn Stars” does the opposite, reducing the subtext so the human condition, and the economic system that often governs this condition is invisible. The truth, I think, is that both programs are fictions, and choosing one over the other depends entirely upon whether we want to be “entertained” or “educated.”

No matter, pawnshops are anachronistic now, as the vast majority of the population now barters in goods—via Craig’s List, eBay, etc—on-line. Most of us have fewer and fewer reasons to visit a pawnshop, and our opportunities to do so are dwindling.

I’ve only been in a pawnshop a couple of times in my life, and I have to admit that I had an almost romantic vision of the places, imagining it would look like a Tom Waits song sounded.

A heart-breaking and true vista, it would be a place where lost souls hoped to reclaim the forgotten treasures of another life, but it was nothing like that at all. The items in the store were a prosaic collection of electronics, fatigued jewelry, and other boring items that just happened to retain their value. The people in the place were the typically motley and unhappy assembly that you’d find in any discount store, and it all had about as much poetry in it as an elevator. I expected theater but instead I was bulldozed by the ordinary, which is exactly how I felt watching “Pawn Stars.”

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