“Take your pick, Frankie Boy, my loss will be your gain.” – Bob Dylan
Over the past couple of years, a number of people have asked me whether I watched the show American Pickers on the History Channel. They were extremely surprised when I admit that not only did I not watch it, I’d never seen a single episode. They couldn’t believe I wasn’t a big fan of a reality program about a couple of guys who spend their time driving around looking for junk to resell. “It’s like a TV version of your column!” I was told more than once.
It made me wonder — would the same folks presume a banker would be psyched to watch a show called American Teller? After a long day of driving around failing to find anything interesting or re-salable, just about the last thing I’d be interested in watching on TV is a couple of dudes doing the same thing. TV is for escape, right? Even reality TV is about getting away from your own reality.
Still, it’s nice to be thought of at all, and if one of my family members wants to shout me out on Facebook because they caught the show and it reminded them of me, then it’s just another example of interconnected media making a better world for us all. I certainly don’t get offended, like I was when another well-meaning person asked me if I might be interested in appearing on AMC’s Hoarders.
So when American Pickers released its first season on DVD recently I decided I would check it out, if for no other reason than to get a column out of it. Apparently the show is popular, or at least has found an audience — and who wouldn’t want to watch something that combined the thrilling appraisal action of Antiques Roadshow with the travelogue jollies of, say, Feasting on Asphalt?
Now, I am in no way averse to watching some junk porn on TV — I’m no Roadshow devotee, but I’ve definitely said “Oh Mama” more than once when remote roulette lands me there. I am far from culturally aloof enough to deny the appeal of a good voyeuristic (or ostensibly educational) reality show. And a great deal of this show is shot on Iowa back roads. My heritage is Iowa back roads — rural Iowa is where I first learned about rust. If this show is not made for my specific “special interests,” it should at the very least have my sympathy.
So I was shocked to discover how much I disliked it.
For those of you as unaware of this show’s basic nuts and bolts, the formula works like this: Two guys, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, drive a big white van through the back roads of middle America, looking for things to resell. Wolfe is the hyperactive alpha of the pair, Fritz the mumblier, more slovenly “second.”
When they find a house that looks like it has something they might want to buy, they stop, make extremely stilted small talk and then look for things the owner might wish to sell. Along the way, much personal junking terminology, like “Freestylin’!” and “Break the ice!” is bandied about, as is a great deal of sentimental and hyperbolic chatter about the nature of “picking.”
I don’t think my distaste for the show comes from it being “bad pickin’.” I know how annoying it is, when you’re watching something with someone who has expertise in the field, spoiling it by scoffing that “they’d never do that.”
So I’m not going to go on about the cognitive dissonance I suffer wondering how they can make ends meet going out on a run and coming back with one thing in the van. But I will say that during the “money shots” that are central to a show like this (when they disclose how much they paid versus how much it’s supposed to be worth, then tallying the make-believe profit), I kept marveling at how lousy their margins were. As far as I could tell, these guys were paying way too much for way too little.
Imagine my surprise when a little online research revealed an overwhelming number of observers who thought the Pickers were exploiting “the elderly” from whom they bought their stuff. As far as I could tell, the elderly were taking them to the cleaners every time. Ah, the internet — so much hate, and so often for all the wrong reasons.
No, what it came down to for me is that American Pickers was just some bad TV. It’s drastically too long at an hour an episode, with a cast that cannot carry the weight. A reality show lives and dies by the personalities of the characters it spotlights. You should either kind of like them, or you should really like laughing at them. Neither is the case with the guys in American Pickers – I just want them off my porch and out of my house. Now, for some good TV (not to mention better pickins), what I recommend is Pawn Stars, a program that helped me avoid writing this article for a week while I binged on its trashy, obviously staged, Las Vegas-y goodness. Procrastination – that’s what TV is for!