Everything on American T.V. Is for Sale Right Now

The theories why shows like 'Pawn Stars' are connecting with America in a downturn

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There's a glut of reality TV shows right now about people selling off their curios, knicknacks and things that have been in their family for generations for cold hard cash. It's widely theorized that the popularity of such programs--like American Pickers, Pawn Stars (cast above), Auction Kings, Hardcore Pawn, Storage Wars, and, the elder statesman of the junk-for-cash genre, Antiques Roadshow--is attributable to the economic downturn, and the slow recovery that's followed.

What's unclear is whether the image of someone cashing in their legacy is freeing or tragic. Down the hall at The Atlantic, Meghan Lewitt argues the genre is an empowering, hopeful one. "The bracing message of these shows," she writes, is that the seemingly worthless flotsam and jetsam of our lives--the bric-a-brac and boxes of old baseball cards and discarded furniture that have slowly and inexorably been suffocating us--may actually hold the key to our economic salvation." Time's James Poniewozick is less convinced that the sale of brass candlesticks on A&E can be a model for recovery. Rather, he argues the desire to lick some fiscal wounds is driving interest in the genre. It's not hope, he writes, but "fallen-world nostalgia" that the programs promise, along with paying respectful "tribute to the artifacts of a better, more authentic time."

The bleakest assessment comes form Ad Week's Michael Learmonth. Unlike Lewitt and Poniewozick, he doesn't see the programs as any kind of indication of where the American character is headed. Rather, the increasingly strained knockoffs of top-shelf offerings like Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow are a reminder that the television industry, like the global economy, has no mercy. "Eating each other's young is a game of diminishing returns," notes Learmnuth. "The copies rarely exceed the original, and they just wear out the format faster. What's worse, the networks' own brands start to blur together in a world of sameness."

But until then, enjoy NBC's It's Worth What?, starring Cedric the Entertainer, presumably a late replacement for Cedric the Antiquarian. Joke if you like, but every injection of liquidity helps.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.