New History Channel Show: Pawn Stars

[17 July 2009]

By Chadwick Jenkins

The History Channel is about to launch a new series focusing on the somewhat unpromising subject of a pawnshop. The series goes by the rather prurient but, I suppose, amusing moniker of Pawn Stars and features three generations working together in the pawn business, a business that served as the main form of credit in the United States until about 1950 and remains one of the oldest forms of banking.  This particular business is apparently the only family-run pawnshop in Los Angeles and indeed the family tensions and camaraderie make up a large part of the premiere episode. Thus the History Channel enters the world of (quasi-) reality TV in a manner in which only The History Channel could—mixing family and business dynamics with a genuine interest in historical artifacts.
Richard Harrison (often simply called “the Old Man”) started his “Gold & Silver Pawn Shop” in 1988 after losing millions in real estate. He dresses, at least for the credits, as an underachieving mob boss and because of his poor eyesight (presumably) he squints no end. Supposedly, he assesses the value of any piece of merchandise with remarkable exactitude (at least according to the press material) but in this episode he is exposed as having made a rather serious gaffe—he priced a Carson City coin worth roughly $500 at a mere $50 because he could not accurately read the back of the coin. His son and grandson finally convince him to visit the eye doctor but he insists on driving to the appointment!

Rick Harrison seems to be the center of the business. In this episode, he is the one that goes out to view the merchandise (here a cannon and a humungous table saw) and makes the offer. He is an enthusiastic purchaser and knows when to call in the experts. Now for those of us interested in the history aspect of shows presented by the History Channel, this is where the show earns our interest.

Rick considers buying an 1890 Horchkiss Cannon that may have been used in Cuba for the attack on San Juan Hill. Only 50 such guns are in existence. Justifiably Rick has his doubts. So he calls in an expert to verify its value. Here we learn how one assesses the value of cannons (apparently they have to fire—I want to know who is firing these things off) and we also get a great deal of information regarding this specific model. It truly is intriguing—but it is a rather small portion of the episode. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the reality-show nature of the series forces Rick and his actual work into second place behind the antics of his father and his son.

Ahh… his son. Cory (also known as “Big Hoss” but I refuse to call anyone by such a ridiculous name) works the shop, which basically means he tries to catch his grandfather’s mistakes and humors the shop’s resident moron, a guy by the name of Chumlee but who is called “Chum” (as if that improves matters). Chumlee identifies himself immediately as an idiot (“but I’m your idiot” he says adoringly to Cory) and all of the other employees continually lament his presence when any real work is to be done. If I were more cynical, I would say that he was hired specifically to add a goofy character for the show. Actually, I am that cynical and that is what I am saying. If I am wrong and he is a bona fide employee, so much worse for the company. Cory himself is not much better. He is a tattooed, motorcycle-riding, sarcastic cartoon.

This is the problem with the show. It contains a real figure of real interest (Rick, but you knew that) book-ended by two caricatures. I suppose Richard and Corey represent the human element or better yet the “reality” element but history ought to be reality enough. OK, fine. So I have outed myself. I am a History Channel nut. I love this channel.

But that is precisely why I cannot and will not give them a pass to dress up a lame reality show with the vestiges of historical insight. Yes, I want to know how dealers appraise valuable (or not-so-valuable) objects. Yes, I want to know more about the details of various cannons and their rarity. Yes, I want to understand why a Superbowl ring is more valuable (I can hardly write this) than a Picasso drawing!! But I don’t want to sit through twenty minutes of bullshit for two minutes worth of information.

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