[2 September 2011]
The phrase “reality TV” has become a shorthand code for the current generation of pundits and critics to imply what they think is wrong with TV, culture, America, life, and the universe. It replaces the previous generation’s pejorative use of “MTV” and is no more fair. No matter how bastardized or game-showed, reality TV is essentially a form of documentary and almost always fascinating.
Storage Wars is one of those productions, like Hoarders or Superhumans, that are thrown together cheaply and slickly, full of time-wasting teasers and recaps around the commercial breaks, and which are completely absorbing and illuminating. It follows a handful of Los Angelenos who bid on foreclosed storage units, hoping to reap a profit on selling the contents or even to discover collectable treasures. Only a minority of the transactions in this series fail to yield some profit, and several are very impressive.
In the first part of each episode, the buyers look at the open locker and evaluate what boxes and doodads are visible. Then they outbid each other, sometimes vindictively driving up the price before the patter of auctioneer Dan Dotson. These people are similar, all more or less annoying, all amusing and recognizable. While their competitive emotions are sometimes unpleasant, they can show real appreciation of a lovely discovery. Their involvement is as personal as it is professional. The winning bidder sifts through the stuff, often finding one or two odd or unique items that must be appraised by an expert who explains its value, so the last part of the show is like Antiques Roadshow.
Why is the locker abandoned? Did the owners die? Did they become delinquent? Did they skip the country? Is it the economy, stupid? These unknown people’s dramas of mortality and desperation are implied beside the mystery of how and why they gathered these objects. Stuff in boxes, lives in boxes. The bidders are entrepreneurs who perhaps take advantage of misery (or simply time) to glean and recirculate these objects in the ecomony. As scavengers, they’re as necessary and useful as the unfairly maligned vulture. It’s a human cycle that tells us about acquisition, value, capitalism, sometimes ugly emotions and sometimes beautiful things. Through its particular lens and its particular formula, Storage Wars is simply about life in America.