So which is it? Are we supposed to hang on to all of our old crap just in case it turns out to be valuable, or is that kind of packrattery the sign of a disordered mind? Let’s leave it to basic cable docu-series to weigh the evidence, pro and con. In the “pro” column: The History Channel’s American Pickers, which follows the cross-country adventures of Antique Archeology’s Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, two men dedicated to salvaging artifacts from junkyards and backyards and thus “telling the history of America, one piece at a time.” A typical hour follows Wolfe and Fritz to two or three sites, where they dig through mounds of rusty metal and dusty paper to find vintage technology or advertising that they can re-sell to collectors and Hollywood set-dressers. The guys also talk at length with the folks who’ve accumulated all this stuff over the years, and haggle with them over the asking price.
Wolfe and Fritz are pleasant guys, each with their own quirks—one’s gregarious, one’s more businesslike—and it’s entertaining to watch their methods of wearing down prospects. It’s also instructive to see how people hesitate to let go of their collectibles, either out of sentiment or because they’re convinced they’re about to get taken. But American Pickers is too bland in its presentation, which resembles just about every other “here’s some guys doing a thing” docu-series on TV today. The lone bit or organizational framework comes at the end of each episode, which offers a monetary appraisal of everything Wolfe and Fritz bought, showing how well they made out. But even that tally misses the point. American Pickers shouldn’t be about money, or even about the nutty characters at Antique Archaeology. It should be about the objects themselves: where they came from and what they mean. (Unless the show is arguing that “the history of America” is significant only for its resale value.)
A&E’s Hoarders, meanwhile, looks more deeply at the kind of people that even the employees at Antique Archaeology would be afraid to meet: shopaholics, obsessive collectors and hopeless slobs, all of whom Hoarders both helps and (to an extent) exploits. Each episode introduces two case studies in compulsion, usually found where viewers would least expect them, behind the doors of externally neat upper-middle-class suburban homes. The first part of every episode outlines the scope of the problem, and how in some cases it’s led to the hoarders losing their partners, losing custody of their children, and even losing their freedom once the police knock on their door. The second part brings in cleaning crews and therapists to sort through the mess—both literal and psychological. And then in the end, we see some of the subjects regain at least a little control of their lives, and some fail miserably.
As with a lot of basic cable docu-series, Hoarders suffers some from diminishing returns. Each episode is gripping and emotional—and fascinating in a looking-at-car-accidents way—but it’s not like the eighth hour of Hoarders is any more or less revelatory than the first. Still, the show is refreshingly serious about the issue it’s spotlighting, as it digs into how people can delude themselves into thinking that they’re going to need those old magazines some day, or that throwing away an old drive-thru drink cup would be wasteful. And Hoarders is commendable for being unafraid to show the horrific endpoint of consumerist mania, while acknowledging that a TV crew can’t solve everyone’s problems in a week, no matter how many handymen and garbage trucks they send in.
Key features: American Pickers doesn’t save anything extra for us; Hoarders piles up some bonus footage.