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TV's macho hunters and gatherers

Who knew antiquing could be a competitive sport? On such shows as 'Storage Wars' and 'Auction Hunters,' brawny hosts kick it up a notch or 12, much to the delight of millions of viewers.

January 23, 2011|By Simon Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

"Antiques" and "adrenalin" don't seem like they belong in the same sentence. But a new breed of television show makes the finding and selling of vintage items look like a life of adventure.

Whether they are set in pawn shops or peer into the hitherto obscure realm of storage-unit auctions, these hugely popular series ditch the aura of tweedy refinement surrounding precursor programs such as PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" (based on a British import) and instead present antiquing as rugged, manly and all-American.

Antiques hunting: In the Jan. 23 Calendar section, a headline for an article on TV shows about hunting for antiques referred to a series as "Storage Hunters." The show is "Storage Wars." —

"You know that feeling you had when you were 11, still believed in Santa, it's Christmas Eve and you're going to bed with a really warm, fuzzy feeling?" asks Darrell Sheets, one of the stars of A&E's "Storage Wars," which follows four men who compete for the contents of units auctioned off by storage companies when renters default. "Well, every time I buy a storage locker, I've got that feeling."

Audiences are hooked too. The debut season of "Storage Wars" has averaged 2.3 million viewers. A&E has rushed a second season into production to broadcast in the spring. That's also when the second season of "Auction Hunters," Spike's rival show about the storage salvage trade, begins its run.

Pawn shop series such as truTV's "Hardcore Pawn" and the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" are also thriving. The latter is the History Channel's highest-rated show, with some episodes of the second season, which ended last May, reaching 5 million viewers. History's other winner is "American Pickers," a series that follows two men as they travel back roads, sifting through piles of junk stowed in garages and barns. At its peak, "Pickers'" second season also topped 5 million last summer.

Variants on these proven templates crowd the TV schedules these days, from Discovery's "Auction Kings" to TLC's "Auctioneers" and Syfy's "Hollywood Treasure." It's virtually a new television genre, a hybrid of infotainment and workplace-based reality TV, with a third element of wheeling-and-dealing suspense added for extra entertainment value.

In contrast with the genteel "Antiques Roadshow," where people who've brought in family heirlooms do their best to conceal their excitement when the price estimate is announced, these new programs are unabashedly cash-oriented.

They are also ultracompetitive and macho. The publicity blurb for "Auction Hunters" talks about "the cutthroat world of storage-unit auctions." Sequences in "Storage Wars" are soundtracked by the testosterone-pumping blues-rock of songs such as George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." Many of the lead characters in these shows look more like bouncers than antiquarians.

A 300-pound hulk with a thick black beard and tattoos on his bald head, "Auction Hunters'" Ton Jones specializes in collectable weapons such as medieval daggers and armor. In one episode, the discovery of a samurai sword in a storage unit prompts a slow-motion shot of Jones testing the blade by slicing through a defenseless watermelon, its bright red guts splattering every which way. Later that episode, he risks serious injury, or worse, by trying out a Civil War-era muzzle-loaded rifle (antique firearms are worth much more if they can actually fire). The gun expert that Jones and partner Allen Haff have called in warns him, "If it blows up, no money — and no you."

Yet for all their swagger, the truth is that the stars of these shows are connoisseurs with a refined eye for both the aesthetic qualities and historical interest of the artifacts they handle. "Pawn Stars'" Rick Harrison is positively erudite, a real bookworm who has even tried to teach himself Latin. But because the physically imposing man talks tough when it comes to negotiating prices, Harrison comes across as a down-to-earth, red-blooded American.

Many of the workplace-oriented "docusoaps" and character-driven contests on television today involve interior decor, hair-styling, cuisine, fashion and real estate. But there's nothing metrosexual about these new "mantiquing" shows. "American Pickers'" Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz take a Pigpen-like delight in getting down and dirty. At one point, Wolfe points out, "This isn't mousse in my hair. We just haven't showered for five days."

He describes one densely congested junkyard as "a picker's jungle gym," while Fritz enthuses, "It's where we like to be, right in the dirt, the dust and the rust." The duo pull out gas signs and cash registers from the 1950s, food cans with the labels faded but intact, and toy cars from the 1930s (ideally still in their original boxes). Some of their finds are collectable rarities; others will sell to decorators as atmosphere-enhancing vintage tchotchkes; still others, such as motorcycles and automobiles, might be cannibalized for parts to fix up other vintage vehicles.

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