Reality Pawns: The New Money TV

Reality Pawns: The New Money TV

A new set of reality shows thrive on foreclosed property and unpaid bills; they promote a bargain-basement ethos where everything has a price, and where discovering and comparing those prices is a source of pleasure.

Photo by Wilhelm Joys Andersen/Flickr.

Repo Games, one of the vilest reality shows in the history of American television, premiered on Spike in 2011 with no fanfare and a simple premise, delivered in a voiceover intro: “Nobody wants to meet the repo man. But when this repo man comes, you’ll get the chance to ditch those late notices for good.” A little more than a minute later, we see a man built like a professional wrestler pull up in front a woman’s house, along with a camera crew that rushes into her driveway like a SWAT team. The owner’s “REPO REPORT” then flashes across the screen: “Name: Wallace. Age: 44. Vehicle: ’96 Dodge Caravan. Intel: Her weave alone will whoop your ass.” Heavy metal plays in the background. A tow truck backs in under the van, which Wallace does not appreciate, and then the wrestler, co-host Tom DeTone, proceeds to describe the situation in which Wallace now finds herself: Tom is going to repo her car, but if she can answer three of five trivia questions right, the car will be hers, and fully paid off. The tow rig lifts the back of the car when she gets answers wrong and brings it down when she gets them right. With six family members watching on, Wallace prevails. She dances with Tom and then boasts in the post-game interview, “I ain’t going to even fucking look for a job now.”

The next contestant, a skinny, shirtless stoner living at his mom’s, has a similar message when he wins: “Guess what I learned, America: if you don’t pay your bill, somebody else will.”

The last contestant, a woebegone fifty-eight-year-old man, grovels when he loses: “Even though I lost, you guys gave me an opportunity to save my car and I appreciate that, because in this time and age not many people would even do that.” Tom responds, “Wish you all the best, John, and I wish I could pay off everybody’s car. It’s just not possible.”

Even in “this time and age”—years into a hollow economic recovery built atop an already hollowed-out economy, more than a decade after the ascendance of American reality television—and even given the very low bar of taste set by Spike, I expected to find some online traces of outrage at the cruelty, exploitation, and heavy-handed stereotypes on display in Repo Games. All I could find was a commentary in the American Thinker, a conservative website, speculating that “the numerous stupid and vulgar contestants” on the show were typical Obama voters. In depicting these people seemingly cast from a Tea Partier’s nightmare—the lazy welfare queen, the languid video-gamer mooching off the ’rents, the emasculated, aging white man who “never should’ve gotten this far”—the show “inadvertently [veered] from goofy entertainment into trenchant social commentary.”

Reality television, though almost never considered serious, was seriously considered in its early days, and the attention was mostly negative. Some early precursors, such as MTV’s The Real World (1992–present), which brought a group of young strangers together under one roof for a few months, earned begrudging respect for their occasionally frank depictions of stigmatized subjects. But the ethical tone and artistic qualities of reality TV seemed to be set by Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, a one-night special aired on Fox in February 2000. Multi-Millionaire was like a beauty pageant that collided with a high-stakes Dating Game: women were paraded on stage for a rich man, seen only in silhouette, who would pick a lucky winner and marry her right then and there. The National Organization of Women denounced the show, as did the bride in numerous interviews. (It turns out that a restraining order had been filed against the man by a former girlfriend, not to mention that he wasn’t that rich after all.) The marriage was annulled in April. By the summer, American versions of Survivor and Big Brother, both European imports, had premiered and won huge audiences. These series featured “normal” people, competing for prizes and for their fifteen minutes of fame. They set the standards—confessional interviews, fierce competition, oblivious narcissism, casting designed to foster conflict, semi-scripted scenes—that would define the genre.

Critics worried about what had opened the reality TV floodgates. Perhaps it was the seductive intimation that anyone could be (briefly) famous—and that the skeptical audience probably deserved it more than the charmless cutthroats who auditioned successfully. Perhaps the viewing public was growing so detached, so impatient with clichés and inured to fictional cruelty, that they hungered for something realer. Maybe we’d watched so much television that we were all acting like TV characters anyway; someone just had to put the cameras in front of us. Or was the rest of TV already so bad that anything novel was welcome?

If you were reading the tea leaves of popular taste, you would find a lot to get upset about. But focusing only on viewers reinforces the idea that TV programming is driven by what consumers want. There’s no doubt that reality TV would have remained a very marginal phenomenon without a willing audience, but it wouldn’t have spread the way it did—with proliferating subgenres colonizing the whole TV landscape—were it not for the economics of producing these shows. According to Charles B. Slocum, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West,

In virtually every line of the production budget, reality-based programming is cheaper than traditional programming. Not as much equipment is needed, and it’s cheaper. There is a smaller crew. There are fewer paid performers. There are fewer sets. The economic role of reality-based programming is to permit a network to cost-average down the price of programming across the entire primetime schedule.

And, as a strike this spring by writers on the show Fashion Police brought to public attention, reality writers are predominantly nonunionized, with wages and benefits that reflect this fact. Even if entertainment execs weren’t terrified of the Internet pushing down their bottom lines, cheap and titillating programming was a no-brainer.

The cultural panic over reality programming faded as the genre became a permanent and profitable TV fixture. In the meantime, a relatively small group of intelligent and well-crafted television dramas, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, became critical darlings, arguably marking the first time the medium has surpassed mainstream American cinema as an art form.

As a result, more recent developments in reality TV, including some of the most popular cable shows of the last five years, have attracted less attention. Critics have taken note of the rise of so-called blue-collar TV—where “blue collar” means burly fishermen (Deadliest Catch) and loggers (Ax Men) risking their lives to take care of their families—and the related “redneck” subgenre, featuring, for example, Cajuns with thick accents hunting swamp alligators (Swamp People). Repo Games also follows people doing their jobs—the co-hosts are supposedly both actual repo men—but it is part of a different phenomenon: the money-crazed, market-idealizing reality show, immersed in a funhouse version of the culture of debt and credit.

Although consumer debt was holding the American economy together for decades before the recession laid it bare, these shows are a distinctly post-recession phenomenon. They thrive on foreclosed property and unpaid bills; they promote a bargain-basement ethos where everything has a price, and where discovering and comparing those prices is a source of pleasure. These shows are competitive in the way that much reality TV is, but the competitions are embedded in actual economic practice. These shows are the popular idea of the free market, writ small.

Two shows define this subgenre more than any other: Pawn Stars, which premiered on the History Channel in the summer of 2009, and A&E’s Storage Wars, launched in December 2010. These remarkably formulaic programs set viewing records on their respective channels and inspired cable TV execs to run dozens of imitators.

Pawn Stars depicts the goings-on at a Las Vegas pawn shop that caters both to people making ends meet at the end of the month and to habitual gamblers. Most of the store’s transactions are pawns, offered at the industry’s typically high interest rates. Most of the customers depicted on the show, however, resemble the people who bring heirlooms to Antiques Roadshow, if slightly gruffer. And most of the transactions depicted are sales and purchases, not loans. (The producers defend the absence of the typical pawn customer by appealing to the unique character of this pawn shop, to the repeat customers’ desire for privacy, and to audience sensibilities.)

In its structure, Pawn Stars is in fact a lot like Antiques Roadshow, the old PBS standby. Both ride on the fantasy that treasure might be lurking in anyone’s attic. But the differences between Roadshow and what History Channel executives are calling “artifactual entertainment” are telling. The pawn shop setting (unlike Roadshow’s convention hall set-up) tells us that we’re here for business, and lends the show at least the pretense of documentary. The PBS series features dozens of experts in various fields, while on Pawn Stars the assessors are mainly in the family business: Richard Harrison the patriarch, his son Rick (the show’s star), Rick’s son Corey, and Corey’s friend Austin “Chumlee” Russell. They sometimes call on specialist “friends” in town to assess or restore particular items, and they frequently go to shooting ranges to test antique weapons, such as a nineteenth-century cannon shown on the first episode. Pawn Stars also attempts to signify youthfulness (successfully, as evidenced by its high under-thirty-five viewer ratings) with generic hard-rock interludes and souped-up graphics.

Despite its alleged factual and historical content, Pawn Stars is character driven. The Harrisons and Chumlee bicker and mock each other more or less constantly, in scenes that seem scripted to varying extents. The arguments are presented as a tough-guy façade covering a warm, family-friendly core. These men make their living by driving down what their customers ask for, but they have to put food on their tables, too, and pay all those employees we don’t see on camera. Their homespun manner, their fascination with historical artifacts and the moment of discovery, the fact that we don’t see their private homes (a very rare sight in the entire subgenre) or any truly desperate clientele—all of it makes the pawn biz seem like an honest one: usury with a human face. There aren’t any complex debt vehicles or international price-fixing scandals at this lender, and the simple profit calculus is literally shown on screen: projected sale price minus purchase price equals projected profit. When the Harrisons and their staff won the National Pawnbrokers Association “Pawnbroker of the Year” award in 2010, the organization claimed they had improved the public image of pawn shops more in one year than the NPA’s publicity team had over decades.

On Storage Wars, naked economic warfare takes a more central role, but the family unit and flights of whimsy intervene to prevent the characters from looking like complete sociopaths. The show features a husband and wife duo who auction off storage units whose owners are delinquent in their payments. Various characters who want to resell the contents try to intimidate and frustrate each other as they compete for the units. The winners dig through their lockers and assign unverified prices to the items inside. On the first season, there’s Dave, a brash man with a second-hand business big enough that he brings a team of men with him to carry off his hauls; Jarrod and Brandi, another husband and wife pair, who run a struggling consignment shop; Barry, a dilettante collector who employs various outlandish tricks (for instance, using a little person on stilts) to gain advantage; and Darrell, a perpetually sunburned and doltish man who, along with his son, is on the hunt for the “wow factor.” One participant warns that “once we get through those gates, there is [sic] no friends, and there is no professional courtesy. It’s every man for himself, and may the best man win,” and at the end of each episode, the day’s winner is declared according to self-reported profits. But despite the fierce bidding, the show’s tone is light-hearted, even ironic.

Pawn Stars and Storage Wars launched an entire subgenre, with various epigones on cable channels including TLC, Lifetime, Discovery, Travel, Spike, and of course History and A&E. There are direct franchise spin-offs, such as Cajun Pawn Stars and Storage Wars: Texas, related shows such as American Restoration (which features an antique restorer frequently consulted on Pawn Stars), and a host of imitators. On American Pickers, two friends travel around the country dropping in on old farmers and hoarders to make on-the-spot deals on salvaged antiques. On Barter Kings, the hosts do away with cash altogether, transforming a small and inexpensive item into something grand through a series of in-kind trades with people they meet through Craigslist. Other shows transplant the auction idea into other settings, like Baggage Battles (unclaimed luggage at airports), Container Wars (unclaimed commercial shipping containers), Texas Car Wars (semi-junked hotrods), and Flip Men and Property Wars (foreclosed houses). On Picker Sisters and Pawn Queens, there are women.

One of the most notable of the debt-and-credit reality TV shows released in the wake of Pawn Stars and Storage Wars is Hardcore Pawn, truTV’s most popular show and the inspiration for its own spin-offs, such as Hardcore Pawn: Chicago and the deranged Combat Pawn. Although it is clearly an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Pawn Stars, the show’s producers and writers have set out to differentiate themselves from their relatively staid predecessor. Like the other shows in the subgenre, Hardcore Pawn extols the small-business owner, depends on a familial cast to drive the action (“We disagree more than regular employees, but we have each others’ back”), and is full of scripted scenes that strain credulity. But Hardcore Pawn trades on its grit and volatility. The Harrisons appear to make money by playing with toys, while the Golds have captured the pugilistic atmosphere of The Jerry Springer Show, replete with bleeped-out cursing, fights broken up by large security guards, and a stripper pole (all on the first episode).

Despite the obvious fakery, the Detroit pawn shop owned by Les Gold, a third-generation pawnbroker working with his children Seth and Ashley, appears to have real customers who are about as happy as you would expect customers at a pawn shop—let alone a pawn shop in Detroit—to be. And as Les proudly states, “We don’t call the experts, we are the experts.” The customers lie and get lied to, and they are indeed desperate. “We’re not Antiques Roadshow,” Les told an interviewer, claiming Hardcore Pawn shows “how the other other half lives,” a reverse image Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (David Paulin, author of the American Thinker commentary, explicitly draws a comparison between the people on Repo Games and the poor depicted in Michael Harrington’s The Other America, all of whom he sees as suffering more from a lack of middle-class values than a lack of money.) “The draw that truTV has really focused on was the reality of what goes on in a real pawn shop with real people,”* Gold told an interviewer for the Detroit Free Press. Again, its claim to depicting real life is laughable. But the show might actually present what the typical petit bourgeois believes is typical of the working poor: either jocular deference or outrageous hijinks.

Watched in close succession, these cash-crazed shows reveal a number of common tropes. They portray an unforgiving social landscape, where taking risks at others’ expense is the way to get ahead. They recommend crude psychological techniques for closing the sale: trick your auction competition into dropping too much money on a bad unit, encourage people selling their goods to name a price before you do, leverage their personal problems to encourage a less-than-ideal trade, and never be afraid to get the better deal. They rely on family and childhood friends to provide some centripetal moral force and invoke “the economy” and “the times” to explain why people are willing to do what they do. They express awe in the face of old, undiscovered, and abandoned riches, and nostalgia for a simpler capitalism. And beneath the veneer of small-town, small-business, conservative ethics, you can find the preening personalities, petty feuds, platitudes, and falsities that have characterized the bulk of reality television.

These shows and the seedy corner of the economy they depict aren’t just about winners and losers, but strivers and failures, the bold and the broken.

Some of the suspicious scenes are obvious and expected. Struggling actors are cast into the parts of longtime assistants to the experts; the first “reveal” of a locked-up, foreclosed house begins with a camera already inside; a piece of dialogue is filled with zingers that could only have been written beforehand; transactions that could have taken place online are dramatized on location; shop owners implement hare-brained schemes to squeeze a couple extra bucks.

But a lawsuit issued last fall by Dave Hester, possibly the most despised character on Storage Wars, after he was fired, charged that producers “salted” storage lockers with rare, expensive, and antique items before they went on the block. Allegedly, some of the items already belonged to the winner before the sale, and at other times goods were supplied by a large Los Angeles antiques store. The auctions themselves, Hester claims, were often staged, with producers giving extra money to contestants they wanted to win a particular locker. Parts of the far-reaching suit (as of this writing) have been dismissed by the Los Angeles Superior Court, and A&E denies his allegations. But given the unbelievable rate at which bidders find unbelievable items on the show, it’s hard to believe that Hester is just making it up. Some committed, online amateur sleuths (like the person behind have made a cause of finding inconsistencies in this show and other reality-cash programs that back up his claims.

One of the biggest revelations in the lawsuit was an incidental one: at the time the suit was issued, Hester was earning $25,000 per episode, plus numerous bonuses. The real cash was never in buying abandoned storage units, but in making the auctions an exciting venue of social conflict for TV. On online message boards, people claiming to have attended these auctions in the past write that they have given up: huge crowds now show up and lose lots of money in the elusive pursuit of the baseball card collections, rare coins, celebrity memorabilia, and bizarre antiques that frequently pop up on Storage Wars and its competitor shows. Others have reported their disappointment upon visiting the Harrisons’ pawn shop in Las Vegas, where the main business now appears to be selling Pawn Stars tchotchkes.

This isn’t to deny that the market in buying foreclosed properties, and in pawning and selling secondhand goods, has boomed in the post-recession years. As Richard Harrison told the Las Vegas Sun, “[Y]ou have to understand that 17 to 20 percent of people in the United States don’t have an active checking account or any bank affiliation, and this is a place where they can get a loan.” The same arguments are made by the booming payday loan industry and others in the quick-cash credit business. They can get away with charging usurious rates—what scholars have called “the cost of being poor”—because they satisfy a need that other institutions, from banks to employers to government programs, aren’t meeting.

Are these shows also satisfying a need? Busted-economy reality TV wouldn’t exist if it weren’t cheap to make, and it may be popular for any number of the scary-seeming reasons that reality TV in general is popular. But it also seems like a coming out for a number of predatory business practices that seem refreshingly frank in the wake of a financial crisis that people are told is too complicated for them to understand. For an audience primed on the language of individual bootstrapping and grave threats to the free market, these shows may seem practically heartwarming.

Rick Harrison made his politics explicit in recent months. In an interview on the Mark Levin Show, a program hosted by one of the most popular right-wing radiomen this side of Rush Limbaugh, Harrison assailed the state for not granting him a permit to film a Pawn Stars segment on government land (they blamed, falsely, he believed, the sequester for the permit denial) and attacked Obamacare for hurting employers. After beginning to make an interesting if ill-informed point about how small banks were treated poorly by the Obama administration while the big banks were bailed out, Harrison revealed a simpler, more sinister endgame: “We have the government that’s down on business, down on business, people with money. I know someone else who did that. His name was Lenin. I mean he blamed the banks, aka the Jews, he blamed the intelligentsia. Let’s re-
educate everybody.”

This sort of statement is a commonplace in right-wing U.S. politics, and, along with Rick Santelli’s infamous screed against “loser” homeowners who couldn’t keep up with their mortgages, constitutes the worldview of the Tea Party Right: the beleaguered middle against the underclass and its elite allies. But coming from the Pawn Stars star, the statement brought to mind an exchange from the film Repo Man, Alex Cox’s 1984 punk classic. Bud, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells his repo trainee Otto (Emilio Estevez), “Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on. Do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?”

Otto: They don’t pay bills in Russia, it’s all free.

Bud: All free? Free my ass. What are you, a fuckin’ commie? Huh?

Otto: No, I ain’t no commie.

Bud: Well, you better not be. I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians either.

These shows and the seedy corner of the economy they depict aren’t just about winners and losers, but strivers and failures, the bold and the broken. In this universe, there are simply some people on the right side of the asymmetrical information divide, and others born to be conned. And there is no mutual aid without interest.

Nick Serpe is the online editor of Dissent.

*truTV’s motto is “Not Reality. Actuality,” and its reality programming is consistently a couple of steps beyond credibility; some of its shows, including another repo show, Operation Repo, are filmed like reality shows but feature completely reconstructed scenes. The trajectory of truTV, which used to be Court TV (spell “court” backward, drop the “oc,” and you get something like the truth), mirrors a number of other cable channels. The History Channel has dropped its standard historical content in favor of reality fare and picked up a slogan to reflect the change: “History: Made Every Day.” TLC, which used to stand for “The Learning Channel,” now stands for “TLC,” and A&E (previously “Arts & Entertainment”) is now just “A&E,” presenting “Real Life. Drama.”