Storage Wars debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern, airing its first two episodes.
J.J. Abrams has this whole thing about the box, how the mystery of what's inside the box is more interesting than actually finding out what's in it. Shaking your Christmas presents and imagining what could be inside and hoping you get the thing you've always wanted is often more exciting than actually getting it. Finally, A&E has built an entire reality show around the idea of a giant box containing ... something and the appeal of ripping it open and seeing what's inside. It's easy to see how Storage Wars could become formulaic and difficult to watch after only a season, but for its first two episodes, both airing tonight, it's very enjoyable indeed.
The premise of Storage Wars revolves around the fact that the United States has many thousands of square miles of storage space, enough to house every man, woman, and child in the country seven times over, according to the opening credits sequence. These storage units make their money by renting out their space to people who have things they need secured, of course, but the single biggest way they lose money is from people defaulting on their rent. If someone doesn't pay rent on a storage unit for more than three months, then everything inside that unit becomes the property of the storage company. The items are auctioned off but not piece by piece. Instead, the company hires an auctioneer to sell whole UNITS, and various pawn shop owners, consignment specialists, and other scavengers descend on the auctions to hope they'll find treasure packed in the back of these units. But they're not allowed to step inside the units during inspection, nor are they allowed to open up sealed boxes. The buyers are only allowed to buy the unit based on what they think they can see standing outside of it.
Obviously, this is a high-risk, high-reward kind of operation. The various buyers the episode follows all talk about their greatest moments, the units they purchased that revealed, say, comics collections worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or BMW mini-cars several decades old hidden beneath mountains of trash. There are likely people who pursue a low-risk, steady-reward version of this job, only buying up units that they know will feature items they can resell for a mark-up, but that wouldn't make for good TV. As such, the four buyers the show features are the kinds of people who take wild gambles. They're also a perfect fit for the weird brand A&E has built for itself as a network featuring mostly reality shows about people who skirt around the edges of American society. A&E has become, for better or worse, the network about the other end of American consumption, the place where our desire to GET stuff is a little dirty and terrifying, and Storage Wars is a weird companion piece to Hoarders. What happens when the hoarder simply runs out of room? These guys get a hold of his stuff.
The show might have assembled slightly more compelling personalities. After watching the first two episodes, it's hard to feel terribly compelled by most of the characters, though the show has at least two buyers that will keep many viewers coming back. The first is Dave Hester, owner of a consignment store in Newport Beach and a man who's virulently opposed to newcomers to the storage auction game (which doesn't explain why he signed on to a reality show that makes this look like the easiest way ever to become a millionaire, but no mind). Hester goes out of his way to drive up the price on what he believes to be junk units, knowing that he can eat a certain amount of losses if he accidentally buys one of these lots. He's a ruthlessly good businessman, and the way that he draws out the auctions is fun to watch, as his sheer asshole-ishness in the bidding rubs everyone the wrong way to his obvious delight.
Then there's Barry Weiss, a fairly classic Los Angeles type. He's the guy who's willing to do just about anything to make sure he gets the sale he wants, and he's particularly fond of items that have some connection to celebrities. With his thick-rimmed glasses and wavy grey hair, Weiss almost looks like a Hollywood producer, and when he cruises around Hollywood looking for someone to tell him how much he could fetch for a bunch of Suge Knight's clothing that he ended up with, he completely fits the part. He's also fond of utilizing bizarre methods to throw other buyers off, as when he spends much of the second episode running around with a little person on stilts who uses night-vision goggles to peer into units that appear to just be filled with trash. Of all of the buyers, Weiss is the most entertaining, perhaps because he's the one who most seems to have completely lost his mind.
Unfortunately, the show's other "characters" don't pop with nearly as much interest. Darrell Sheets has a reputation for hanging back and waiting for just the right deal. (He's the one who bought that giant comic book collection.) In terms of a reality show that thrives on big gambles, though, Sheets ends up feeling a little staid. Similarly, Jarrod Schulz is almost TOO fond of gambles, and that often reduces his wife, Brandi, to a woman who seems to spend all of her time shrieking at her husband about all of the stupid crap he buys, a character type that's never appealing, even on a "reality" show. The Schulzes seem chased by disappointment in these episodes. That could make for a cautionary tale, but it's too often boring. Similarly, any time spent with auctioneer Dan Dotson feels a little perfunctory because he doesn't have a lot to contribute to the rest of the narrative. If this is a game show (and the producers force a weird competition framework onto it), then Dotson is the game show host, but the episodes frequently can't figure out what to do with him, beyond marveling at how quickly he can speak. He's necessary to the show, but any attempts to make him a character of his own fail.
Still, Storage Wars is worth a look, particularly in a month when there's not a lot of other TV to take in. For better or worse, A&E has these glimpses of the seedier side of the American dream down cold, and the thrill of all of those taped-shut boxes, just waiting to give up their treasures never goes away for the buyers or the viewers. At all times, there's the question of just who walked away from this stuff, of just who let their lease expire on all of this material, then didn't bother to retrieve any of it before it was repossessed. In some cases, like a unit filled with the detritus of a failed fast food restaurant, it's obvious that someone is running away from what was once a business opportunity. But in others, it just seems like people are running from dreams or giving up on pieces of themselves that no longer fit, like that giant baseball card collection or a bag full of watches. There's probably a series to be made of the people who bought this stuff in the first place (if Hoarders isn't already that series), but the buyers of Storage Wars would say that it doesn't matter. In an America where everything seems to be crumbling, finders keepers remains the surest law of the land.