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‘Storage Wars’ – Treasure or Trash?

Storage Wars
A&E

If you’ve never seen A&E’s hit show, ‘Storage Wars,’ you might have a difficult time understanding why so many would find it compelling. Take a look, however, and you’ll find a show that hits a surprising amount of pure entertainment buttons and does so in half-hour chunks that fly by the edge of your brain like a dream you can barely remember but know you enjoyed. Let’s face it: It’s a well conceived show.

‘Storage Wars’ focuses on auctions for abandoned storage lockers and the enterprising gamblers who bid on them. The first half of each episode features an almost gameshow-like structure. A group of potential buyers watch as an auctioneer, Dan Dotson (played by Brendan Gleeson if they made a movie), breaks the lock on each unit and lifts the garage doors open. No one’s allowed to actually go inside. What little they can see from the threshold is all the info they get before bidding begins.

The bidding phase has its own little dramas and battles. Some individuals may bid for a unit they don’t even want just to artificially raise the price out of spite. Pride and other emotions (but mostly stupid male pride) often drives these bidding skirmishes more than common sense and it enhances the show’s excitement. Once the bidding process ends, we follow these new unit owners as they sift through stacks of garbage searching for hidden gold (both literal and figurative).

Along with its winning structure, the show succeeds thanks to its varied cast of characters. The show’s villain comes in the form of Dave Hester (played by Patton Oswalt if they made a movie). Dave has more money than all the other guys, and — given the way he uses it to belittle others — probably the smallest wiener. He routinely bullies and purposefully sabotages plans just out of meanness. He’s like Daniel Plainview, except Daniel Plainview was awesome.

Next we have Darrell Sheets (played by Brion James if they made a movie twenty years ago). Darrell fills the reality television prerequisite redneck slot. He’s chubby, crude, and wears less sleeve than Larry the Cable Guy. In the opening credits they call Darrell “The Gambler,” but the term doesn’t really apply. Most of his problems come from a weird inferiority complex he has with Dave, which leads him to overbid for crappy units. I’d say he provides the show with the most “laugh at the idiot” moments, since he frequently has no idea what he’s talking about.

The show also features a young, rookie couple, Jarrod and Brandi (I’m open to suggestions as to who should play Jerrod if they made a movie, but Brandi would definitely be played by Jenna Fischer). These two frequently fight with each other over Jarrod’s poor bidding decisions, but sometimes Dave pisses them off and they form like Voltron so he can kick both their asses at the same time. It’s very romantic.

Brandi’s participation often engenders notes of good ol’ boy sexism from the male cast members. Dave in particular seems to seethe at the idea of her getting any leeway at all. The show itself kind of plays this game too. An episode in which Brandi does all the bidding herself gets stuck with the sexually demeaning title “Brandi’s First Time” and appears to relish the losses she sustains without Jerrod’s help.

And last we have Barry Weiss (played by Peter Fonda if they made a movie), the show’s best and most likable cast member. Barry often shows up to auctions in bizarre cars wearing strange clothes and hanging out with interesting people (Kenny Rogers’ son and Stewart Copeland of The Police, for instance). Even with a bully like Dave, Barry does his best to remain positive and stay within the realms of fair play. Unlike everyone else on the show, Barry doesn’t sell this junk in some store (that I know of). He says he wants to make a profit, but having a good time appears to be his paramount concern.

While it’s always fun to watch Storage Wars’ bidding battles, the show doesn’t get super great until all the parties split up to sort through their loot. It’s always worth an unintentional laugh as these knuckleheads start pointing items out and claiming some monetary worth, which the show tallies up without question as though already sold. “Empty pack of vintage cigarettes, that’s $100 bucks right there. Ripped Boston ’82 Tour sweatshirt? Ah hell, that’s got to be $500-$600 bucks easy.”

The thing that’s difficult to keep in mind with this show is that no one ever actually sells anything (well, sometimes they do but it’s rare). A toilet known to be owned by Marilyn Monroe may be worth thousands, but they still have to get it to someone who’s interested. The Internet makes that easy, but most of these guys use this stuff to fill shelves in their antique mall/flea market/pawn shops. They’re not traveling around searching for collectors. The show bases its loss-profit tallies solely on promises we never see fulfilled.

The best comes when the Storage Warriors find some strange, mysterious artifact whose worth they can’t simply pull out of their asses and must be appraised by a local expert. There seems to be an expert for everything you can think of. Want to know about a gigantic golden fishing reel? Go to the fishing reel expert! Did he tell you your fishing reel was actually a kite winder? Go see the kite expert! Under the sleazy stupidity of ‘Storage Wars’ rests a weekly argument for the self-educated American small businessman as our country’s secret intellectual badasses. These people know everything about their field. It’s amazing. You can show a Chicken Statue expert some piece of Chicken Statue junk and she’ll automatically tell you the year it was made, its country of origin, how many orphans died creating it, and how much money you can expect to make off it.

The show focuses on their endless factoids because those brief history lessons are interesting and raise the intellectual value of the items. But only to those of us watching at home. The actual Storage Warriors don’t give a shit (excluding Barry, who often decides to keep things for himself when their histories intrigue him enough). Most times they just kind of feign interest, waiting for the expert to finish their stupid spiel so they can get to the money talk.

So there are two ways to look at this show: the sad way or the happy way. The sad way involves paying close attention to the fact that all this stuff used to be the private property of a person who either died or fell on hard financial times, while a bunch of yokels plow through it looking for items of value. You can also take up the show’s insistence that cultural artifacts only matter so much as they can be disintegrated into paper money.

Or you could look to Barry and all the show’s experts and realize that not everyone’s existence is so pointless and awful. The Storage Warriors may only care about money, but that money wouldn’t exist for them if people didn’t have genuine affection for these strange, esoteric interests. Plus, these experts are super knowledgeable while Dave and Darrell only know about storage units and most times Darrell’s wrong about even that.

Depending on your choice, this show either reinforces notions of American inferiority or perversely erases them via really dumb Americans frequently running into really smart ones. Either way, it offers a unique look at both our cultural present (trashy reality TV show) and our cultural past (often crazy awesome antiques) and entertains so thoroughly that I can watch a whole marathon and feel like only fifteen minutes passed. One of these days, someone on the show is going to beat the hell out of that Dave Hester guy, and it will officially become one of the greatest programs ever made.

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