What The Sell?!

What The Sell?! debuts tonight on TLC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

For the sake of beating every other TV critic to the pun, I’d be remiss in not suggesting Yawn Stars as an alternative title for TLC’s latest reality siphon, What the Sell?! Whether it’s Hoarding: Buried Alive emerging from underneath A&E’s Hoarders or their Hoboken-based Cake Boss acting as a topper to Food Network’s Baltimore-set Ace of Cakes, TLC has basically made its name of late with unabashed retreads of competitors’ ideas. Except TLC's demographic skews decidedly more  mainstream than most of the networks it poaches from, allowing executives to adjust  established viewing trends of the moment, ever so delicately, as warmer, fuzzier, "unique"  programming. 

Judging by the nearly two million pairs of eyeballs who tuned in for the 2010 pilot of What the Sell?!, it’s a pretty floatable creative model, however de-evolutionary. And chances are, tonight’s “You Had Me At Dino” and subsequent episodes will continue to score million-person-plus audiences, even if those viewers tune in purely as curiosity runoff from the way Pawn Stars has momentarily invigorated popular interest in trash-for-cash culture.

But if only What the Sell?! were actually sorta trashy like Pawn Stars. History Channel’s blue-collar answer to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow consistently—and impressively— turns the bottom-feeding world of desperate, amateur Las Vegas auctioning into an addictively watchable education on world history, while recasting the central family's essentially exploitive enterprise as an exemplar of multi-generational American entrepreneurship. What the Sell?! on the other hand, tries to have it both
ways.

A la Pawn Stars, we get to eavesdrop on the daily negotiations of used-goods purveyors. In this case, we drop in at Wheaton, IL’s posh antiques outpost The Perfect Thing, run by Judy Martin, her daughter Kate Martin, and elder matriarch, Gloria Moroni. We don’t get checks signed by Carlos Gambino or 19th century work desks that double as firearms like at Pawn Stars' Gold & Silver, but customers in tonight’s official series debut bring everything from a dinosaur egg to a classic rocking horse made from real animal hide inside the store. And I actually liked the transparency of having Judy and Kate divulge their intended selling price to the audience, which typically remains withheld on Pawn Stars. Still, there’s a polite, Midwestern etiquette and haughty setting to What the Sell?! that, apart from the Martins/Moronis’ ultimate thrust to make a deal, sets a tone more in line with the dulcet—and, frankly, dull—Roadshow.

So in “Dino,” as producers guide the cast through hand-wringing interviews that get edited into deal segments, attempting to pass them off as cravenly profit-minded, it feels manipulative and unnatural. (The less said of its superfluous, fast-forwardable attempts at personalizing the store owners through cutaways to Gloria’s ventures in online dating, the better.) If What the Sell?!’s path is to become a sweet, homey slice of life and family business with insight into antiques appraisals and transactions, let it be that. Throughout the episode, though, the sense of urgency to squeeze inside an existing format while eking out a unique corner of genre real estate is palpable, and it indicates a show that will need significant retooling should it last beyond a couple seasons—assuming it’s not already halfway through a revolving door.

Stray observations:

  • I can’t emphasize enough how much What the Sell?! makes you appreciate the work Pawn Stars’ producers, editors, and writers do on that show, and what a singularly terrific goldmine they landed on. (Though, as with Sell?!, I could do without the rehearsed little skits that break things up.)
  • The title screen looks like it belongs to a bad sitcom idea the network originally had in mind for Judy, Kate, and Gloria but scrapped.
  • Judy's riding of that rocking horse was genuinely almost graphic and very unsettling.
  • I will say I enjoyed the story behind one woman’s 19th century Native American framed photos but was surprised at Judy’s quickness to reveal their true worth. They’re too nice!
  • So far, What the Sell?!’s resident experts make the stiffs on Pawn Stars look like they just came from a one-man show on the Vegas strip.
  • I think the girl with the music box missed Judy’s HDTV analogy a bit.
  • I actually kind of liked it that Judy offered to throw in a free trinket for the music-box girl to help decorate her apartment. This show should stick to its sweetness. Not everything needs a bad guy.

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