The Recession Hits Reality TV

A rash of frugality-themed shows have premiered since 2009, from Pawn Queens to What the Sell!?. What can we learn from them?



Reality television has long trafficked in the guilty pleasures of conspicuous consumption. But while staples like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Bravo's indefatigable Real Housewives franchise continue to chronicle the adventures of the rich and profligate, the new spirit of austerity sweeping the nation is forcing the wealth-obsessed genre to adapt.

In the new world order of recession reality TV, spending is giving way to frugality, and obsessive bargain hunters are lauded as conquering heroes. A slew of cable shows that have premiered since 2009, including Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Extreme Couponing, Pawn Queens, What the Sell?!, Storage Wars, and Hardcore Pawn, celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of common folk. The shows offer up colorful personalities, like the gruff Harrison clan who run the Las Vegas shop featured on the History Channel's top-rated Pawn Stars, but a major part of the appeal lies in their ethos of economic self-empowerment. The bracing message of these shows 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.

Of course, the immutable laws of reality television decree that even positive behavior must be exaggerated to ridiculous extremes. Parsimony may be the new spendy, but that doesn't mean that the national obsession with acquiring has diminished. Many of the bargain hunters featured on TLC's Extreme Couponing come off like hoarders on a budget. There's surely nothing normal or healthy about buying thousands of diapers when you are childless, or sacrificing entire rooms of your house to jars of tomato sauce and enough tubes of toothpaste to last an average person 40 years. The show features two or three shoppers per episode, following them as they clip coupons and painstakingly plot a grocery store trip to add to their already massive stockpiles. Some of them root through their neighbors' trash and recycling bins in the tireless search for more savings. They talk about the approaching shopping trip as the biggest and boldest haul of their careers, in much the way that a career bank robber might plot his last great heist.

"I'm like a marksman. Instead of a hunter who's hunting a deer, I'm hunting deodorant," one extreme couponer triumphantly explained.

It makes for much more riveting television than you might expect. The show presents its subjects as an amalgam of circus freak and folk hero, but it's hard not to be impressed and envious as the savings ring up and surrounding shoppers and store employees gawk in amazement. The most intrepid bargain seekers will walk away with an astounding $1,000 worth of groceries and toiletries, for which they will pay $50 or less.

I stumbled across Extreme Couponing late one night and, when it ended, I sprang off my couch, galvanized to immediately embrace a couponing lifestyle. You see, I recently landed in New York City, a place where a jar of mayonnaise inexplicably costs $7. While I had no intention of amassing an enormous stockpile of food and household items as though I was preparing for the zombie apocalypse, I was sufficiently inspired to believe that couponing might free me from the city's condiment tyranny. I flopped back a minute later, deflated, when I realized that I didn't even know where to start gathering coupons, as we had finally abandoned our print newspaper subscription as a cost-cutting measure. (I believe this is what's known as a financial cul-de-sac.)

My favorite of the recession reality shows is A&E's Storage Wars, which combines the popular sub-genres of real estate and antiquing into one uber-addictive series. And real estate doesn't get much lower-end than repossessed storage units. The show, which just wrapped up its successful first season, follows a motley crew of treasure hunters who venture into the least glamorous parts of California—towns with unrecognizable zip codes that house sprawling, hive-like storage facilities—to bid on the contents of abandoned units in a series of (arguably) high stakes auctions. Sometimes the gamblers stumble into a cache of valuable collections and antiques, other times they walk away with nothing but piles of junk.

Once a reality series reaches a certain level of popularity, there occurs an inevitable meta moment when the show's cultural influence becomes inextricably entwined with the on-screen drama. On Storage Wars, that moment occurred in one of the later episodes of the season when the regular characters showed up to an auction to find a flood of first-time buyers (or "newbies") anxious to get in on the action. The novices proceeded to bid with reckless abandon, running up the prices on the units and posing an interesting dilemma: that the show's rising popularity could actually hurt the characters' core business. Even more concerning was a scene in which one of the newbies explained that he had just quit his job in order to focus entirely on this new endeavor. Later, in an on-camera confessional, an old-timer shook his ruefully, commenting that the guy will have to learn the hard way how difficult it is to actually make a living on buying storage units.

Therein lies the downside of recession reality TV—that the lure of quick cash and hidden treasures will lead viewers to treat the shows less as entertainment and more as a how-to guide. A plan to chuck one's day job and live solely on the potential value hidden in discarded junk is, in its own way, as fantastical as anything Bravo honcho Andy Cohen's fevered, gilded mind could produce. (Seriously, WHAT is a maternity concierge anyway?)

However laudable the new ethos of austerity may be, reality television is still a contradiction in terms. Chances are slim that any of us will achieve the ecstatic levels of success experienced by the new bargain hunting reality stars. And I have a $7 jar of mayo in my fridge to prove it.