Oh, television. How long can we keep this love/hate thing going?
A few years ago, cable TV experienced an influx of reality shows chronicling the lives of the rich and/or famous. Of course, Robin Leach had been telling us all about the rich and famous for years, but his show seemed singular in its genre. MTV Cribs may have been a forerunner in the rebirth of collective money-oggling (is this show really still on?). I also remember The Simple Life, in which small-town America was subjected to whiny socialites and yipping Chihuahuas in the name of a few tourist dollars, as one of the first of this genre to appear. Shows about wealthy housewives in various cities followed and became incredibly successful, considering the fact that most of them lacked even the elementary structure of a show like The Simple Life, wherein some basic task was accomplished (or at least attempted) over the course of an episode. What’s more, these folks weren’t even famous. It seemed money alone was enough to hold our attention. Bravo’s Housewives series is still running, along with a show about the Kardashian family, which capitalizes on the cuteness of avid alliteration a bit too much for my taste. (Get it?) I’m sure there are hordes of lesser reality shows devoted to the rich (and I’m sure that 90% of them are airing on Bravo), but a more recent development in reality TV trends suggests that TV land may be growing weary of gratuitous wealth.
Cable networks now abound with reality shows about what I’ll call scavenging. Take, for example, Scrappers, Spike TV’s show about metal scrappers in Brooklyn; or the History Channel‘s American Pickers, which follows junkyard/tag sale enthusiasts across the country in pursuit of “hidden gems,” as the History Channel puts it; or A&E’s Storage Wars, in which professional “buyers” bid on repossessed storage lockers in hopes of finding valuables to sell. (When watching American Pickers, I can’t help but wonder what’s happened to the previous owners of the repossessed goods — if they’re alive, how their lives got off track, or if they’re even aware of the repossession.) Pawn Stars focuses on historical and kitschy nostalgia, while the dynamic within the pawn shop family provides some comic relief from the reality of people pawning heirlooms in order to dig themselves out of financial holes in Vegas.
I recently stumbled upon a less popular pawn shop reality show on truTV. Hardcore Pawn takes place in Detroit, and this setting is highlighted in the show’s promotional clips and opening credits. The website lures viewers in with it: “Every day brings new danger as the Golds operate in the heart of one of America’s most troubled cities.” Misfortune takes center stage here, though the show itself doesn’t quite acknowledge the gravity of the scenes that unfold (or that are made to unfold) within the pawn shop. Pleas for deals based on pity over impending foreclosures, unwanted pregnancies, and general financial woes appear to be edited for callous dramatic effect more than anything else (Will this start a fight in the shop?), and the atmosphere is sometimes infused with unspoken racial tension when these exchanges go wrong. The twenty minutes I spent watching an episode made me uncomfortable and depressed — which might explain why this version isn’t as popular as the History Channel’s sugared-up gloss on pawn shop “reality.”
It’s the spirit of scavenging behind these programs that’s interesting to me. In the midst of a serious recession, the public has (perhaps predictably) become enamored with everyday opportunists. That is the spirit of capitalism, after all. So is this new trend some inevitable perversion of the American dream — everyone can get theirs, even if only by snatching it from the claws of the weak? I’m not criticizing this kind of scavenging, per say, (I myself am a fan of yard sale bargaining) but it does seem like a reflection of the national circumstance. We’re scraping bottom, and ruin has become our preferred aesthetic (as evidenced in the popularity if apocalyptic films and books).
Of course, more inspiring shows about “ordinary people” realizing their dreams through talent are also popular right now, and these are my favorites to watch: Project Runway, Top Chef, Design Star — but what hope do these shows offer those ordinary folks who don’t have this kind of talent?
Mitt Romney recently gave a speech in which he declared the United States “a land of opportunity for every single person, every single citizen…where everyone has a fair shot. If they have a willingness to work hard,” he said, “and the right values, they ought to be able to provide for their family and have a shot of realizing their dreams.” Exactly what he meant by “the right values” is unclear to me, but perhaps he just meant money, for if one values money above all else, one is likely to have a better time getting hold of it (better than say, one who values art or humanitarianism above all else). Maybe he just meant “not gay.”
In any case, it’s mostly a myth — the idea that the only thing standing between a man and his fortune is determination and hard work. Now that those who have worked hard all their lives and received nothing but a layoff slip and a pile of medical bills are realizing this, I suppose some consolation is found in a gritty revision of the naïve American dream. If hard work fails, resort to scavenging — when times are tough, at least you can count on some poor schmucks to fall further than you, so that you can swoop in on their leftovers. All this is not to say that I wouldn’t scavenge a bit myself, if that became my best option.
The exciting part of all this is the implication that this TV trend is related to an expanded awareness of the American class system, or at least the dynamics of loss and wealth in a country with a deflating middle class. It goes almost without saying, however, that showcasing the misfortunes of a dying working class for public entertainment is troubling. There is a labyrinth of opportunism happening in the production of these shows, with the real wealth being amassed by network executives while the “stars” squabble over decaying Persian rugs. So perhaps the hope that this trend signals awareness is still too high.
Excuse me—I have to go write my proposal for Poetry Stars now.