Reality TV’s New Wave: Trash Picking, With a Smile

By January 8, 2011Uncategorized

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Isaac Brekken for The New York Times

Feel-Good TV “Pawn Stars” tells stories about finding solutions to financial problems.

Screaming Flea Productions/A&E

“Hoarders,” on A&E, tells tales of overconsumption.

Here, having too much is more than just a problem of limited space — it’s a failure of psychology. The things themselves don’t matter so much — could be cans, could be cars, could be cats. Anything that fills a room can ruin a life.

The past year, though, has seen a shift in perspective. No longer is clutter the enemy, but a potential gold mine. The new reality television hero is the picker, someone willing to face the accumulation the owner just can’t and squeeze value out of it. There’s potential liberation in them thar piles.

The question is no longer how to get rid of it, but instead, what can be gotten for it?

Even though this shift swaps one reality television archetype for another, it still counts as a turn for the optimistic. Hoarding shows — and also the many recent shows about addiction, hyperconsumption of a different sort — mirrored a society that had hit rock bottom, and had no tools with which to dig out.

The new wave of thrift television suggests a world ready for rebound, one more symbol of the slow return of post-recession optimism. Solutions have supplanted problems. Burdens are no longer intractable. By shifting attention away from the accumulators, with their untreated pathologies, to the rescuers, these shows may mean that the nadir is behind us, even if the evidence displayed indicates that there are many obstacles yet to be overcome.

The granddaddy of the thrift movement is “Pawn Stars” (History) which premiered in 2009 and has spawned several spinoffs. At the higher end are genteel shows like “Auction Kings” (Discovery) and “Cash & Cari” (HGTV), with neat transactions and sometimes fancy items. More raw is “Hardcore Pawn” (truTV), about one of the largest pawn shops in Detroit, a grim chronicle of underwhelming transactions in which loud people often seek far more money for their items than they’re worth.

“American Pickers” (History), which premiered last year, follows a pair of antiques diggers who crisscross the country to relieve people of their vintage clutter. “Antiques Roadshow” has been doing a version of this for years, but on that show, money isn’t presented as motivation: often, the pleasant shock of a semi-valuable find appears to be gift enough.

But this new class of programs are driven at least as much by poverty as curiosity. That’s even truer on a pair of shows that strip these transactions down to their basest state, in which other people’s detritus — not their valuables — is the loot. On “Storage Wars” (A&E) — just renewed for a second season — buyers bid (with only minimal inspection) on abandoned storage lockers, hoping to turn a profit on the things other people forgot about, or couldn’t afford to keep hoarding. “Scrappers” (Spike), which aired last summer, followed scrap-metal collectors in Brooklyn on their light-hearted chase of tossed-off copper wiring, boilers and aluminum siding.

These scavengers are an inevitable counterpart to a fizzling culture of abundance. Dollars change hands on these shows, though often not many.

Many of the shows detail the profits earned from a day’s picking, pawning or scrapping, and in the case of the resale houses on “Auction Kings” and “Cash & Cari,” the numbers can be surprisingly small. In the case of “Scrappers,” in which a couple of workers typically split a few hundred dollars after a hard day’s work, it’s heartbreaking, a naked depiction of working-class struggle.

The secondhand dealers, too, are fighting over scraps, hoping to pull in $50 for a $25 find. Factor in labor costs and time spent, and not much profit is left over. That’s where the secondary income of the reality TV star, including merchandise, becomes essential. (Almost all of the stores with their own shows sell memorabilia.)

These programs, brutal as they are, depict just the end of a long cycle of acquisition; only a bit of lip service is given to how these items came into the possession of their owners.

Maybe the next wave of money-saving shows will display overspending in action: TLC just picked up a full season of “Extreme Couponing,” in which circular-obsessed shoppers make off with hundreds of dollars’ worth of products for pennies on the dollar. They rummage in paper-recycling bins to find unclipped coupons, and they buy what’s on sale, and a lot of it, which leads to stockpiling that verges on the comedic.

Unlike other hoarders, they don’t appear the least bit ashamed of their behavior. And they’re part of a shockingly large community of over-the-top cost cutters. These stockpilers, whose videos are available on YouTube, come off as the antithesis of a past YouTube sensation — haul shopping, in which mostly young women show off their ritzy purchases for the camera.

Coupon shoppers are not flaunting their bulk cases of cereal and deodorant, but the psychosis of acquisition, under the guise of smart savings.

Can a call from “Hoarders” be far behind, beginning the cycle anew?