Baggage Battles

Baggage Battles debuts tonight on the Travel Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Storage Wars became one of cable television’s most addictive distractions on the strengths of a three-pronged attack: 

  1. Big, colorful characters (Yuuup!)
  2. Mystery (is there a goose that lays golden eggs stuck behind that discarded Bowflex?), and
  3. The vicarious jolt that comes from watching strangers piss away their money

The risk factor of Storage Wars and its countless imitators taps into a primal itch that most people avoid scratching (assuming their brain chemistry allows them to). Why bet the house on lotto tickets, the roulette table, or the ponies when you can spend multiple hours per week watching Barry Weiss and friends attempt to turn seized assets into reality-TV profits?

Of course, there’s not much of a thrill in watching other networks and production houses reformat Storage Wars. That series has struck a proven, consistently used mold, so there’s little risk these days in grafting brassy personalities to Antiques Roadshow. That’s one of several hurdles a show like Baggage Battles needs to clear on the path to piling up on your DVR: If there’s already Storage Wars, Storage Wars: Texas, Shipping Wars, and Auction Hunters, what’s new and exciting and thrilling about, say, four previously unknown auction hounds traveling around the world to strike it rich with Aunt Carol’s lost luggage? If there are so many other dealers offering the quick, vicarious gambling fix, why sample what Baggage Battles has to offer?

Well, for one, there’s the Travel Channel angle, an asset that’s undervalued in the two episodes of Baggage Battles airing tonight. Local color from the settings of those episodes—Miami and London, respectively—pops up here and there (a canvas bearing the face of Che Guevara prompts a mixed reaction from the Miami crowd; the London episode is careful to put at least one of the stars on a double-decker bus), but it’s mostly used to fill in the space between the auctions and the appraisals. We’re told by the show’s hot-headed young gun, Mark Meyer, that the site of the bidding in London, Greasby’s, is one of the most storied auction houses in the United Kingdom, but it’s left at that. On Baggage Battles, it’s not about the destination—it’s about who you meet and what they find there.

Baggage Battles’ traveling buyers are a small band of resellers and treasure hunters: Mark owns a thrift shop, and has learned through experience to cast a wide net at the auctions. Through editing, voiceover, and talking-head interviews, the show gives Mark a main rival in the form of Billy Leroy. A stylish former ad man who puts his acquisitions toward keeping New York’s Lower East Side weird, Billy is Baggage Battles’ main source of flash—that pencil-thin mustache alone probably has better stories to tell than the average reality-TV participant. (Not that we’ll get to hear them in this venue.) Bill carries the aging scenester vibe with more grace than Laurence Martin, the skinny-jean-wearing male half of the series’ Jarrod-and-Brandi coupling. Laurence is still a lot of fun, though, and he and levelheaded wife Sally are more or less the bridge from Storage Wars to Baggage Battles, having served as appraisers on the former series.

That the stars readily slot into pre-established archetypes doesn’t speak well for Baggage Battles’ ability to establish a unique identity—Mark wears a blank baseball cap in both of tonight’s episodes, as if to declare his intention to eventually brand it with his very own variation on “Yuuup!” There’s not a lot of distinct scenes to be found in the layout of these episodes either: It’s all scout --> buy --> appraise --> sell, so the success of a given half-hour of Baggage Battles rests on the interesting belongings that happen to turn up in the reportedly 70,000 bags misplaced every day at the world’s airports. Or what happens to be up for sale alongside those belongings: The Greasby’s auction throws a wrench into the premise by introducing seized lots that just might be more valuable than anything hiding in the auction house’s labyrinthine rows of unclaimed suitcases. (Delving into the claustrophobic layout of Greasby’s could have easily eaten up five or 10 minutes of the London episode—but the jam-packed Baggage Battles has no room for such elaboration.)

Without giving too much away, the suitcases Mark, Bill, and the Martins pick up over the course of “Miami” and “London” provide the episodes with their highest “risk/reward” quotient. Sure, Baggage Battles isn’t much of a gamble for the Travel Channel—though it might prove to be, as its corner of the reality market grows more saturated with each passing television season—but spending upwards of $1,000 on a piece of luggage the previous owner didn’t bother to retrieve isn’t always the wisest investment. Ultimately, the episodes hinge on the same “one person’s garbage” theme that’s a part of any auction/appraisal show, but what turns up in the bags left behind at Miami International Airport and Heathrow says a lot about what people are comfortable trusting to baggage handlers and flight attendants. For the most part, it’s nothing they’ll miss—the biggest unintentional laugh in these first two installments involves Mark hoping he’s bought the luggage of someone who was traveling with “Italian-made stuff.” But Baggage Battles maintains the ability to surprise when its characters are willing to look past someone’s easily discarded vacation threads to find lost souvenirs. If only those victories—and the jolt that accompanies them—occurred more often.

Stray observations:

  • There’s a potentially voyeuristic angle to Baggage Battles that the show thankfully eschews. When a suitcase turns out to yield only dirty laundry, the cameras don’t linger, and Mark is allowed a soundbite to illustrate how “skeeved out” he is about riffling through someone else’s underwear. 
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