Junker’s Blues

“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!

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4 thoughts on “Junker’s Blues

  1. White Lightnin'

    I agree completely.

    I thought I would like “Pickers” until I saw just how greedy and unappreciative these two guys were to the nice people who let them into their homes with a camera crew in tow, only to later show the world how much money they made from the experience.

    I understand this is how the “Pickers” pay the bills, but they just seem a little crass during the process.

    “Pawn Stars” is a clearly superior show. At least when they haggle over price, they are upfront that it’s nothing personal and just how they do business.

    Keep up the columns, Whitney. This is my favorite feature in Xpress.

  2. We love Pawn Stars as well. At first they owners look like meatheads, but are highly knowledgeable on fine art, antiques, etc.

    The dark side to American Pickers are how these old guys got this stuff to begin with. Hoarders is a show that is sad but fascinating… mainly cause I can go that route at any minute.

  3. brebro

    There was a great show on the now-defunct cable channel, TurnerSouth, that was probably more to your liking. It was called “Junkin’ with Dave and Val” and they went from town to town in the South shopping flea markets and yard sales for both kitsch and crap and were very personable and light for the whole process. They would put the items they bought up for sale on Ebay, then, at the end of the show, they would show how much they either made or lost on the item (nothing theoretical about it). They even did a show in Fletcher at Smiley’s Flea Market.

  4. Dionysis

    Good article. I’ve watched that show two or three times and could not quite put my finger on why I didn’t like it. You’ve crystalized some of those reasons here. I find that I really don’t care much for these guys (especially Wolfe and his inked up girlfriend/business partner), and think the whole made-up ‘profit’ thing is silly (it’s easy to spot their ebay items).

    I also think Pawn Stars is a better show; I usually learn something about the history and provenance of various items that I didn’t know before. Plus it’s good to know what items are really worth versus assumed value.

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