Pawn Stars

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, John Teti visits what is often cable's highest rated show,Pawn Stars. Next week, Zack Handlen drops in on the original CBS procedural, C.S.I.)

Pawn Stars is routinely compared to Antiques Roadshow, a show I wrote about last Monday. Critics always describe the History Channel hit as “Roadshow crossed with [gritty reality show of your choice here].” Yes, the superficial similarities are obvious: People bring their stuff onto the show and have a dollar-value assigned, and the viewer gets a touch of historical background. I enjoy both shows, and I get why “It’s Roadshow for morons!” is such an easy line to write.

But come on, it’s too easy. Surface resemblance aside, Pawn Stars is a fundamentally different program. As I argued last week, the central narrative of Roadshow is an aspirational one, in which regular Americans vault themselves to a higher class with their trinkets and gewgaws. A few pieces of junk are chosen from the crowd and blessed by a class of experts as status symbols, and a prim euphoria results.

The message of Pawn Stars is that status is a goddamn mirage. Rick Harrison, the pug-faced proprietor of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, tears status away with his bare teeth, and he does it simply by making an offer on an item. You want $20,000 for your Civil War officer’s desk? You should. It’s an heirloom, a treasured fragment of American history. And Rick will offer you $1,000 for it, because he thinks he can turn it around for two grand. With that heart-sinkingly earthbound offer, your status is a memory. On Pawn Stars, if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t exist, and the emperor’s clothes don’t sell.

This premise—the emptiness and inevitable disappointment of a self-worth based in material things—is not just a hugely different foundation than the one Antiques Roadshow is built on, it’s far bleaker. Yet Pawn Stars is just as much fun as the PBS mainstay. How can that be?

Well, let’s not kid ourselves. One reason is that it’s a gas to see rubes get slapped around by the Harrisons. It’s not schadenfreude, exactly. It’s like a more sophisticated version of the dollar-bill-on-a-string trick. The people who come into the pawn shop, they reach for that dollar bill every time! And then, yoink.

The owner of the night’s first item, a supposed Arkansas toothpick (a Confederate knife), is the archetypical Pawn Stars customer. He wants $5,000 for his rusty old knife, and his “bottom line” is $1,000. Oh, how I love the “bottom line.” The top number is always fantasy; they know they’re not going to get that much. The “bottom line,” that’s the hope number. They HOPE the price won’t go lower. Rick loves hope, because it’s so much fun to crush. Hope is Rick Harrison’s bubble wrap.

The guy with the Bowie knife says that his brother dug it up out of the ground. Rick says this seems a little suspect, given the remarkably intact wood handle, complete with gleaming finish. Knife guy is in over his head, so he reverts to the surefire don’t-let-’em-know-you’re-lyin’ technique he practiced in the mirror that morning. He goes stiff, maintains unblinking eye contact and reiterates his story in a quiet monotone. He reminds himself to LOOK AS CALM AS POSSIBLE FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

Dazzled by this master fabricator, Rick calls on an edge-blade expert, which is apparently a job you can have (says the guy writing about reality television on the Internet). Bringing in the expert always feels just a bit like cheating to me, as if Rick is peeking at the strategy guide for his video game. I’m usually more intrigued when Rick takes a flier on something he doesn’t know much about (like the personal submarine in a recent episode) than when some know-it-all walks in to provide all the answers before his purchase, but I understand that the show runs more smoothly this way. In any case, the expert says it’s a nice old knife, but yeah, that handle is a red flag. The customer asks for $1,000, and Rick offers $325, shrewdly setting himself up to offer $400 and make the customer feel like he’s “won.” And this is exactly how it plays out.

Next up is a 1970 Honda Z600, which Rick and son Corey check out at a nearby desert junkyard. The owner of the beat-up car seems to be the proprietor of the place, insofar as he has the type of personality you’d expect from someone who has spent his years poking through scrap metal in the Nevada sun with nobody to talk to but himself. “Squirt it!” the man screeches as Rick bends over the car’s carburetor intake, drenching it with ether starting fluid. Rick may be a tough man, but he knows that when a deranged trash-picker tells you to squirt it, you squirt it.

Still, the Z600 just won’t run. Because of this, the owner is willing to accept a mere $4,000 for his dusty, non-functional, 40-year-old shitbox. He eventually comes down to $3,500, “and you can take the can of ether!” he adds, the funniest line of the night. Rick won’t budge off $400, but the customers who don’t make a deal with Rick are often happier than the ones who do, because they still have their dreams. Junkyard Guy is a case in point: “Somebody out there needs that car. There is an ass for every seat, you know.” Good old Somebody Out There, the patron saint of delusional Pawn Stars guests.

The owner of Bernie Madoff’s Rolex was counting on Somebody Out There when he purchased the watch for $32,000 at a U.S. Marshal’s Auction. But now, he’s desperate, because he’s brought it to a place where the guy at the front desk doesn’t even know who Bernie Madoff is. The shaggy, Beetle Bailey-esque Chumlee is the village idiot of the Gold & Silver pawn shop, but he’s the most intelligent performer in the cast. He reads his pre-written lines well—an important asset on a show as oppressively scripted as this one—and his “dumb” ad-libs can in fact be quite witty.

Rick is easily the cast’s worst performer, but he compensates with enthusiasm, which is on full display as he rattles off some Bernie Madoff talking points for the camera. Rick’s technique in these back-room testimonials is to make his eyes real big, grin, and cup his gesticulating hands in a rigid “C” shape, like he’s shaping two plump sausages of scrumptious insider info before our very eyes. Then he finishes it off with his trademark laugh—the sound of a thirsty old horse being strangled—and by force of will, he comes off as a likable human being.

Rick’s father, the Old Man, is more of a prop than a character. Aside from his general curmudgeonliness, one of his major roles is to offer banal observations—as he does with the Sonny Liston autographed bell—in his characteristically old way. His oldness comforts the confused seniors who tuned in to the History Channel expecting to see grainy black-and-white footage of Nazi planes crashing into the ocean or perhaps Hirohito. The bell is “signed by someone who was once best in the world, and that’s neat,” he says, in a shot that depicts him leaning against his reassuringly old car.

Joining the Old Man on the boxing-bell deal is his grandson Corey, heir to the Gold & Silver empire. Corey bears a strong resemblance to his grandfather. They both have the same head shape: a drooping cube of skin with indistinct facial features slathered around the frontal areas. It’s the kind of thing a first-semester art student might sculpt before reinventing himself as an econ major.

Corey is the only member of the cast who has experienced meaningful character development over the course of the show. In the first season, he was still green and overeager, but as the story has progressed, he’s shown more command of the business. He’s a fearsome negotiator, once again taking after his grandfather more than his father. While Rick negotiates with a mix of humor, criticism, and aggression, Corey and the Old Man usually revert to a baseline of aloofness. “I’m almost positive the signature is real,” says the kid who brought in the boxing bell. But the words have no effect on the fleshy golem staring back at him across the counter, so the kid gives in, accepting a $400 deal. (Corey’s skepticism is well-placed: The shop’s go-to document expert later affirms that the signature is fake.)

The last item of the episode is a bowling arcade game from the 1950s. It cost $1,250 in 1957. “That was a lot of money in 1957,” Rick says, as he is contractually obligated to do whenever somebody mentions a money amount from the past.

The machine is in nice shape on the outside, but the wiring is shot. Dale, the owner, asks $6,000. “No fucking way,” Rick replies, with a horse laugh. Dale ends up taking $1,000.

After he leaves the shop, Dale says, “I settled for $1,000 today. You know, I’m happy.” Yet he doesn’t seem that happy. Even though Dale turned a $950 profit on the bowling machine, he has that same hollow-eyed, tired “happiness” that afflicts most of the Gold & Silver customers when they leave their items behind. That said, these people don’t seem unhappy, either. They’ve been paid exactly what their item was worth in that place, at that time. It figures that such a cold, equitable exchange leaves people feeling quite neutral.

But they’re not victims, and that’s critical to Pawn Stars’ success. Rick Harrison doesn’t come off as a predator. He negotiates in good faith. One of the most memorable scenes in Pawn Stars’ run came when a woman brought in an ornate Faberge spider brooch. She asked $2,000 for it. Rick said that he would “love to” buy the item for two grand, but instead he offered her $15,000. The woman thought this over, and countered: “$17,000.” Now that’s Vegas.

Rick is the perfect capitalist for the moment. We’re still contending with a financial collapse brought about by an untouchable society of money-shuffling elites who built personal fortunes by finding new ways to sell absolutely nothing. The derivatives, the credit default swaps, the subprime mortgage security ratings—in practical terms, it was all pretend.

Rick’s business is the perfect contrast: grounded and real. That’s the biggest distinction between Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow. On Roadshow, the history of a thing is the ultimate truth, and the money is a vague fantasy, expressed in uncertain ranges that span thousands of dollars. On Pawn Stars, the history is slapdash—Rick’s most piercing insight on the bowling game is that it’s “like a 1950s version of a Nintendo Wii”—but the money is truth. It is an exact number, in the form of “cash money” on the table, where you can see it and count it.

In a country emasculated by massive, incomprehensible fraud, Rick makes a living in the most straightforward way possible: He buys a thing low and sells it higher. Pawn Stars promises a return to an Eden, the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, where capitalism works perfectly. Dreams are crushed, yes, but liars are unmasked, and status is meaningless. And everyone gets paid. 

Stray Observations:

  • The story of a family business is another part of Pawn Stars’ charm, but I think the show has gotten worse at telling this story, mostly because the production feels less authentic than ever. For instance, the end of tonight’s first episode was a painfully staged segment in which Chumlee breaks the glass on the bowling machine, haw haw haw. I love me some Chumlee, but give me a break. It’s insulting. Maybe I’m just too familiar with the format by now. Still, I feel like the “daily life” segments were less blatantly hijinx-y in earlier episodes.
  • History aired two brand-new episodes tonight, but I said most of what I wanted to say about Pawn Stars in reviewing the first episode. Also, this week’s episodes weren’t the series’ best. (Last Monday was much better.) I do have some stray observations on the 10:30 airing, though, and I gather this is the place for such things.
  • Another “bottom line” bit to open this episode: The owner of a chair owned by Nevada senator Pat McCarran says he “wouldn’t take anything less than $3,500.” He ends up taking $3,100, coming closer to his lowball figure than most customers do.
  • Annals of unconvincing arguments: “I have no reason to think they’re fake.”
  • I like that the producers allow Corey to be clueless about most of the signatures on the Gemini mission photo instead of pumping him full of astronaut facts before taping the segment.
  • Ryan Newman really takes some stick when Rick and Corey debate the value of his firesuit. Says Corey: “C’mon, it’s not Dale Earnhardt; it’s not Tony Stewart; it’s Ryan Newman.” Jeez, harsh. I’m sure Newman’s fans will be upset by this—all four of them!!! Ha ha, screw Ryan Newman and his relatively few admirers.
  • The forensic document expert gives me the creeps a little bit. He has that enormous briefcase, but all he ever takes out is a magnifying glass. What the hell else is in there? Furthermore, he uses the word “feathering” a lot. And he looks like a cross between a mortician and the late David Graf from those delightful Police Academy films. In conclusion: kinda weird dude.
  • The historical tidbits offered by Pawn Stars’ on-screen graphics rarely transcend the informational value of a Bazooka Joe comic, but the bullet points for the Asian wood carvings set a new low for lazy research: “Wood carving is one of world’s oldest art forms. Dates back to prehistoric times.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. It dates back to prehistoric times. We assume.
  • Rick: The Asian wood-carving art “definitely looks like it came from India or Thailand.” Basically the same thing! 
  • The inane “Old Man’s New Office” storyline climaxes with the reveal of the new office in question. There’s an iMac sitting on the desk. The Old Man is like 108. It’s a little late in life for him to switch operating systems, isn’t it? (And don’t tell me they’ve got Boot Camp running on that thing. It’s not even plugged in.)
  • General observations now:
  • The only time you see the Old Man come to life is when someone brings in an old toy. These are some of my favorite segments. His enthusiasm is so genuine. He almost teared up when someone brought in one of those cymbal-playing chimps.
  • Corey’s nickname is “Big Hoss,” which bugs me because it’s redundant. A “hoss” is inherently big, unless you are willing to disagree with 14 seasons of Bonanza. And I am not.