It’s a conundrum: The worst thing about reality shows is how manufactured they are. The best thing about reality shows is how manufactured they are. Producers are getting sloppy at effectively hiding their man-behind-the-curtain vibe, but at least they’re creating good TV, right?
PBS’ Market Warriors has little desire to create a story or allow for the emergence of compelling characters, the characteristics that have allowed shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and even Storage Wars to become popular based on simple junk-appraisal. Instead, it takes the Antiques Roadshow formula and forces it into the template of a perfunctory game show. Four contestants—Kevin Bruneau (“The Prowler”), John Bruno (“The Professor”), Miller Gaffney (“The Assessor”), and Bob Richter (“The Designer”)—are set loose at Rennigers in Adamstown, PA, and tasked with finding pieces from a specific era. In the first episode, they’re looking for mid-century modern (or, post-WWII to the late ‘60s, early ‘70s). In Round One, they have to find one piece in an hour with $1,000 provided (each shopper counts the money on camera, just in case PBS decides to become untrustworthy of all a sudden). Don’t come back in time with the correct piece and forfeit $50 to their foes. In the Bonus Round, each contestant guesses the price of a Steuben Aurene glass vase, with the victor getting an extra $100 to spend. In Round Two, the contestants get as much time as they want to spend the rest of their dough on a max of two items. Whoever makes the most profit at auction wins bragging rights. (A mini-segment in the middle of the show features a flea market-constructed clock by a man named Randall Cleaver. It’s made of tin cans and features a waving Queen Elizabeth. It is creepy and awesome.)
John is most camera-ready, if only because he’s a little wacky and can spout off facts about items off the top of his head rather rely on iPads and smartphones like his competitors. He’s a charming old hippie dude with a long mess of gray hair and his interactions with sellers go beyond light haggling. The rest are painfully bland; Bob tries to speak in catchphrases (“Big boys like to play with toys,” he says about the potential market for a model airplane), while Kevin has no desire to be at all affable. Half the fun of Pawn Stars, etc. is watching familiar characters mug from episode-to-episode, but there’s no Chumlee in sight. At least in Antiques Roadshow, we're treated to the immediate pleasure of watching other people be disappointed.
The proceedings are narrated by Fred Willard, whose voice is pleasantly familiar, even if you keep waiting for him to say “Wha’ happened?” and he doesn’t. Willard isn’t the kindest narrator, often criticizing each shopper as they’re haggling. John receives a free hat from a flea market proprietor who looks like Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club all growed up. Willard’s response: “Actually, John, I thought the hat you wore before was a better look.” Harsh, Fred! Still, there’s a certain charm when the camera focuses on Miller researching pricing on her iPad and Willard proclaims, “She’s using the internet!”
John picks up the most made-for-TV piece, a creepy, wooden, vaguely racist-looking genie lamp. Miller blows her load on a glass Tiffanys jam jar, and Kevin keeps it cheap, scoring high on two lamps. Willard is harsh on Bob, who seems handicapped by the fact that his specialty is looking for pretty decoration pieces, rather than fair prices. But in the end, none of the contestants do particularly well at auction. Miller loses a whopping $430 to come in dead last, and Kevin is crowned the victor with $85 in the black. He may have won the bragging rights, but he’s still not very fun to watch on TV.