Lowering of Legal Reserve benefited the automobile industry.

Lowering of Legal Reserve benefited the automobile industry.


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One of the vilest reality shows in the
history of American television, Repo Games,
premiered on Spike in 2011 with no fanfare
and a simple premise, delivered in a voiceover
intro: Nobody wants to meet the repo man.
But when this repo man comes, you’ll get the
chance to ditch those late notices for good. A
little more than a minute later, we see a man
built like a professional wrestler pull up in
front a woman’s house, along with a camera
crew that rushes into her driveway like a
SWAT team. The owner’s REPO REPORT
then flashes across the screen: Name: Wallace.
Age: 44. Vehicle: ’96 Dodge Caravan. Intel:
Her weave alone will whoop your ass. Heavy
metal plays in the background. A tow truck
backs in under the van, which Wallace does
not appreciate, and then the wrestler, co-host
Tom DeTone, proceeds to describe the situation
in which Wallace now finds herself: Tom
is going to repo her car, but if she can answer
three of five trivia questions right, the car will
be hers, and fully paid off. The tow rig lifts the
back of the car when she gets answers wrong
and brings it down when she gets them right.
With six family members watching on, Wallace
prevails. She dances with Tom and then boasts
in the post-game interview, I ain’t going to
even fucking look for a job now.
The next contestant, a skinny, shirtless
stoner living at his mom’s, has a similar
message when he wins: Guess what I
learned, America: if you don’t pay your bill,
somebody else will.
The last contestant, a woebegone fiftyeight-
year-old man, grovels when he loses:
Even though I lost, you guys gave me an
opportunity to save my car and I appreciate
that, because in this time and age not many
people would even do that. Tom responds,
Wish you all the best, John, and I wish I
could pay off everybody’s car. It’s just not
Even in this time and age€”years into
a hollow economic recovery built atop an
already hollowed-out economy, more than
a decade after the ascendance of American
reality television€”and even given the very
low bar of taste set by Spike, I expected to
find some online traces of outrage at the
cruelty, exploitation, and heavy-handed
stereotypes on display in Repo Games. All I
could find was a commentary in the American
Thinker, a conservative website, speculating
that the numerous stupid and vulgar contestants
on the show were typical Obama
voters. In depicting these people seemingly
cast from a Tea Partier’s nightmare€”the lazy
welfare queen, the languid video-gamer
mooching off the ‘rents, the emasculated,
aging white man who never should’ve gotten
this far€”the show inadvertently [veered]
from goofy entertainment into trenchant social
Reality television, though almost never
considered serious, was seriously considered
in its early days, and the attention was mostly
negative. Some early precursors, such as
MTV’s The Real World (1992€“present), which
brought a group of young strangers together
under one roof for a few months, earned
begrudging respect for their occasionally frank
depictions of stigmatized subjects. But the
ethical tone and artistic qualities of reality TV
seemed to be set by Who Wants to Marry a Multi-
Millionaire, a one-night special aired on Fox
in February 2000. Multi-Millionaire was like
a beauty pageant that collided with a highstakes
Dating Game: women were paraded on
stage for a rich man, seen only in silhouette,
who would pick a lucky winner and marry
her right then and there. The National
Organization of Women denounced the show,
as did the bride in numerous interviews. (It
turns out that a restraining order had been
14 DISSENT S U M M E R 2 0 1 3
filed against the man by a former girlfriend,
not to mention that he wasn’t that rich after
all.) The marriage was annulled in April. By
the summer, American versions of Survivor
and Big Brother, both European imports, had
premiered and won huge audiences. These
series featured normal people, competing
for prizes and for their fifteen minutes of
fame. They set the standards€”confessional
interviews, fierce competition, oblivious
narcissism, casting designed to foster conflict,
semi-scripted scenes€”that would define the
Critics worried about what had ed
the reality TV floodgates. Perhaps it was
the seductive intimation that anyone could
be (briefly) famous€”and that the skeptical
audience probably deserved it more than
the charmless cutthroats who auditioned
successfully. Perhaps the viewing public
was growing so detached, so impatient with
clichés and inured to fictional cruelty, that
they hungered for something realer. Maybe
we’d watched so much television that we
were all acting like TV characters anyway;
someone just had to put the cameras in front
of us. Or was the rest of TV already so bad
that anything novel was welcome?
If you were reading the tea leaves of
popular taste, you would find a lot to get
upset about. But focusing only on viewers
reinforces the idea that TV programming is
driven by what consumers want. There’s no
doubt that reality TV would have remained a
very marginal phenomenon without a willing
audience, but it wouldn’t have spread the
way it did€”with proliferating subgenres
colonizing the whole TV landscape€”were
it not for the economics of producing these
shows. According to Charles B. Slocum,
assistant executive director of the Writers
Guild of America, West,
In virtually every line of the production
budget, reality-based programming is
cheaper than traditional programming.
Not as much equipment is needed, and it’s
cheaper. There is a smaller crew. There are
fewer paid performers. There are fewer
sets. The economic role of reality-based
programming is to permit a network to costaverage
down the price of programming
across the entire primetime schedule.
And, as a strike this spring by writers
on the show Fashion Police brought to public
attention, reality writers are predominantly
nonunionized, with wages and benefits that
reflect this fact. Even if entertainment execs
weren’t terrified of the Internet pushing
down their bottom lines, cheap and titillating
programming was a no-brainer.
The cultural panic over reality programming
faded as the genre became a permanent and
profitable TV fixture. In the meantime, a relatively
small group of intelligent and wellcrafted
television dramas, from The Sopranos
to Breaking Bad, became critical darlings,
arguably marking the first time the medium
has surpassed mainstream American cinema
as an art form.
As a result, more recent developments in
reality TV, including some of the most popular
cable shows of the last five years, have
attracted less attention. Critics have taken note
of the rise of so-called blue-collar TV€”where
blue collar means burly fishermen (Deadliest
Photo by Wilhelm Joys Andersen/Flickr.
S U M M E R 2 0 1 3 DISSENT 15
Catch) and loggers (Ax Men) risking their lives
to take care of their families€”and the related
redneck subgenre, featuring, for example,
Cajuns with thick accents hunting swamp
alligators (Swamp People). Repo Games also
follows people doing their jobs€”the co-hosts
are supposedly both actual repo men€”but
it is part of a different phenomenon: the
money-crazed, market-idealizing reality show,
immersed in a funhouse version of the culture
of debt and credit.
Although consumer debt was holding the
American economy together for decades before
the recession laid it bare, these shows are a
distinctly post-recession phenomenon. They
thrive on foreclosed property and unpaid bills;
they promote a bargain-basement ethos where
everything has a price, and where discovering
and comparing those prices is a source of
pleasure. These shows are competitive in the
way that much reality TV is, but the competitions
are embeIDed in actual economic
practice. These shows are the popular idea of
the free market, writ small.
Two shows define this subgenre more than
any other: Pawn Stars, which premiered on the
History Channel in the summer of 2009, and
A&E’s Storage Wars, launched in December
2010. These remarkably formulaic programs
set viewing records on their respective
channels and inspired cable TV execs to run
dozens of imitators.
Pawn Stars depicts the goings-on at a Las
Vegas pawn shop that caters both to people
making ends meet at the end of the month
and to habitual gamblers. Most of the store’s
transactions are pawns, offered at the industry’s
typically high interest rates. Most of the
customers depicted on the show, however,
resemble the people who bring heirlooms
to Antiques Roadshow, if slightly gruffer. And
most of the transactions depicted are sales and
purchases, not loans. (The producers defend
the absence of the typical pawn customer
by appealing to the unique character of this
pawn shop, to the repeat customers’ desire for
privacy, and to audience sensibilities.)
In its structure, Pawn Stars is in fact a lot
like Antiques Roadshow, the old PBS standby.
Both ride on the fantasy that treasure might
be lurking in anyone’s attic. But the differences
between Roadshow and what History
Channel executives are calling artifactual
entertainment are telling. The pawn shop
setting (unlike Roadshow’s convention hall
set-up) tells us that we’re here for business,
and lends the show at least the pretense of
documentary. The PBS series features dozens
of experts in various fields, while on Pawn
Stars the assessors are mainly in the family
business: Richard Harrison the patriarch, his
son Rick (the show’s star), Rick’s son Corey,
and Corey’s friend Austin Chumlee Russell.
They sometimes call on specialist friends
in town to assess or restore particular items,
and they frequently go to shooting ranges to
test antique weapons, such as a nineteenthcentury
cannon shown on the first episode.
Pawn Stars also attempts to signify youthfulness
(successfully, as evidenced by its high
under-thirty-five viewer ratings) with generic
hard-rock interludes and souped-up graphics.
Despite its alleged factual and historical
content, Pawn Stars is character driven. The
Harrisons and Chumlee bicker and mock each
other more or less constantly, in scenes that
seem scripted to varying extents. The arguments
are presented as a tough-guy façade
covering a warm, family-friendly core. These
men make their living by driving down
what their customers ask for, but they have
to put food on their tables, too, and pay all
those employees we don’t see on camera.
Their homespun manner, their fascination
with historical artifacts and the moment of
discovery, the fact that we don’t see their
private homes (a very rare sight in the entire
subgenre) or any truly desperate clientele€”all
of it makes the pawn biz seem like an honest
one: usury with a human face. There aren’t
any complex debt vehicles or international
price-fixing scandals at this lender, and the
simple profit calculus is literally shown on
screen: projected sale price minus purchase
price equals projected profit. When the
Harrisons and their staff won the National
Pawnbrokers Association Pawnbroker of the
Year award in 2010, the organization claimed
they had improved the public image of
pawn shops more in one year than the NPA’s
publicity team had over decades.
16 DISSENT S U M M E R 2 0 1 3
On Storage Wars, naked economic warfare
takes a more central role, but the family unit
and flights of whimsy intervene to prevent
the characters from looking like complete
sociopaths. The show features a husband and
wife duo who auction off storage units whose
owners are delinquent in their payments.
Various characters who want to resell the
contents try to intimidate and frustrate each
other as they compete for the units. The
winners dig through their lockers and assign
unverified prices to the items inside. On the
first season, there’s Dave, a brash man with
a second-hand business big enough that
he brings a team of men with him to carry
off his hauls; Jarrod and Brandi, another
husband and wife pair, who run a struggling
consignment shop; Barry, a dilettante collector
who employs various outlandish tricks (for
instance, using a little person on stilts) to
gain advantage; and Darrell, a perpetually
sunburned and doltish man who, along with
his son, is on the hunt for the wow factor.
One participant warns that once we get
through those gates, there is [sic] no friends,
and there is no professional courtesy. It’s
every man for himself, and may the best man
win, and at the end of each episode, the day’s
winner is declared according to self-reported
profits. But despite the fierce biIDing, the
show’s tone is light-hearted, even ironic.
Pawn Stars and Storage Wars launched an
entire subgenre, with various epigones on
cable channels including TLC, Lifetime,
Discovery, Travel, Spike, and of course
History and A&E. There are direct franchise
spin-offs, such as Cajun Pawn Stars and Storage
Wars: Texas, related shows such as American
Restoration (which features an antique restorer
frequently consulted on Pawn Stars), and a
host of imitators. On American Pickers, two
friends travel around the country dropping in
on old farmers and hoarders to make on-thespot
deals on salvaged antiques. On Barter
Kings, the hosts do away with cash altogether,
transforming a small and inexpensive item
into something grand through a series of
in-kind trades with people they meet through
Craigslist. Other shows transplant the auction
idea into other settings, like Baggage Battles
(unclaimed luggage at airports), Container Wars
(unclaimed commercial shipping containers),
Texas Car Wars (semi-junked hotrods), and Flip
Men and Property Wars (foreclosed houses). On
Picker Sisters and Pawn Queens, there are women.
One of the most notable of the debt-andcredit
reality TV shows released in the wake
of Pawn Stars and Storage Wars is Hardcore Pawn,
truTV’s most popular show and the inspiration
for its own spin-offs, such as Hardcore
Pawn: Chicago and the deranged Combat Pawn.
Although it is clearly an attempt to cash in
on the popularity of Pawn Stars, the show’s
producers and writers have set out to differentiate
themselves from their relatively staid
predecessor. Like the other shows in the
subgenre, Hardcore Pawn extols the smallbusiness
owner, depends on a familial cast
to drive the action (We disagree more than
regular employees, but we have each others’
back), and is full of scripted scenes that strain
credulity. But Hardcore Pawn trades on its grit
and volatility. The Harrisons appear to make
money by playing with toys, while the Golds
have captured the pugilistic atmosphere of The
Jerry Springer Show, replete with bleeped-out
cursing, fights broken up by large security
guards, and a stripper pole (all on the first
Photo by Daniel Oines/Flickr.
S U M M E R 2 0 1 3 DISSENT 17
*truTV’s motto is Not Reality. Actuality, and its reality
programming is consistently a couple of steps beyond
credibility; some of its shows, including another repo
show, Operation Repo, are filmed like reality shows but
feature completely reconstructed scenes. The trajectory
of truTV, which used to be Court TV (spell court
backward, drop the oc, and you get something like
the truth), mirrors a number of other cable channels.
The History Channel has dropped its standard historical
content in favor of reality fare and picked up a slogan
to reflect the change: History: Made Every Day. TLC,
which used to stand for The Learning Channel, now
stands for TLC, and A&E (previously Arts & Entertainment)
is now just A&E, presenting Real Life.
Despite the obvious fakery, the Detroit
pawn shop owned by Les Gold, a thirdgeneration
pawnbroker working with his
children Seth and Ashley, appears to have
real customers who are about as happy as you
would expect customers at a pawn shop€”let
alone a pawn shop in Detroit€”to be. And as
Les proudly states, We don’t call the experts,
we are the experts. The customers lie and get
lied to, and they are indeed desperate. We’re
not Antiques Roadshow, Les told an interviewer,
claiming Hardcore Pawn shows how
the other other half lives, a reverse image
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (David Paulin,
author of the American Thinker commentary,
explicitly draws a comparison between the
people on Repo Games and the poor depicted in
Michael Harrington’s The Other America, all of
whom he sees as suffering more from a lack
of miIDle-class values than a lack of money.)
The draw that truTV has really focused on
was the reality of what goes on in a real
pawn shop with real people,* Gold told an
interviewer for the Detroit Free Press. Again,
its claim to depicting real life is laughable.
But the show might actually present what the
typical petit bourgeois believes is typical of
the working poor: either jocular deference or
outrageous hijinks.
Watched in close succession, these cashcrazed
shows reveal a number of common
tropes. They portray an unforgiving social
landscape, where taking risks at others’
expense is the way to get ahead. They
recommend crude psychological techniques
for closing the sale: trick your auction competition
into dropping too much money on a
bad unit, encourage people selling their goods
to name a price before you do, leverage their
personal problems to encourage a less-thanideal
trade, and never be afraid to get the
better deal. They rely on family and childhood
friends to provide some centripetal moral
force and invoke the economy and the
times to explain why people are willing to
do what they do. They express awe in the face
of old, undiscovered, and abandoned riches,
and nostalgia for a simpler capitalism. And
beneath the veneer of small-town, smallbusiness,
conservative ethics, you can find the
preening personalities, petty feuds, platitudes,
and falsities that have characterized the bulk
of reality television.
Some of the suspicious scenes are obvious
and expected. Struggling actors are cast into
the parts of longtime assistants to the experts;
the first reveal of a locked-up, foreclosed
house begins with a camera already inside;
a piece of dialogue is filled with zingers that
could only have been written beforehand;
transactions that could have taken place online
are dramatized on location; shop owners
implement hare-brained schemes to squeeze a
couple extra bucks.
But a lawsuit issued last fall by Dave
Hester, possibly the most despised character
on Storage Wars, after he was fired, charged that
producers salted storage lockers with rare,
expensive, and antique items before they went
on the block. Allegedly, some of the items
already belonged to the winner before the
sale, and at other times goods were supplied
by a large Los Angeles antiques store. The
auctions themselves, Hester claims, were often
staged, with producers giving extra money to
contestants they wanted to win a particular
locker. Parts of the far-reaching suit (as of
this writing) have been dismissed by the Los
Angeles Superior Court, and A&E denies his
allegations. But given the unbelievable rate
at which biIDers find unbelievable items on
the show, it’s hard to believe that Hester is
just making it up. Some committed, online
amateur sleuths (like the person behind www.
storagewarsisfake.com) have made a cause of
finding inconsistencies in this show and other
reality-cash programs that back up his claims.
18 DISSENT S U M M E R 2 0 1 3
One of the biggest revelations in the
lawsuit was an incidental one: at the time the
suit was issued, Hester was earning $25,000
per episode, plus numerous bonuses. The
real cash was never in buying abandoned
storage units, but in making the auctions an
exciting venue of social conflict for TV. On
online message boards, people claiming to
have attended these auctions in the past write
that they have given up: huge crowds now
show up and lose lots of money in the elusive
pursuit of the baseball card collections, rare
coins, celebrity memorabilia, and bizarre
antiques that frequently pop up on Storage
Wars and its competitor shows. Others have
reported their disappointment upon visiting
the Harrisons’ pawn shop in Las Vegas, where
the main business now appears to be selling
Pawn Stars tchotchkes.
This isn’t to deny that the market in buying
foreclosed properties, and in pawning and
selling secondhand goods, has boomed in the
post-recession years. As Richard Harrison told
the Las Vegas Sun, [Y]ou have to understand
that 17 to 20 percent of people in the United
States don’t have an active checking account or
any bank affiliation, and this is a place where
they can get a loan. The same arguments are
made by the booming payday loan industry
and others in the quick-cash credit business.
They can get away with charging usurious
rates€”what scholars have called the cost of
being poor€”because they satisfy a need that
other institutions, from banks to employers to
government programs, aren’t meeting.
Are these shows also satisfying a need?
Busted-economy reality TV wouldn’t exist if it
weren’t cheap to make, and it may be popular
for any number of the scary-seeming reasons
that reality TV in general is popular. But it
also seems like a coming out for a number of
predatory business practices that seem refreshingly
frank in the wake of a financial crisis
that people are told is too complicated for
them to understand. For an audience primed
on the language of individual bootstrapping
and grave threats to the free market, these
shows may seem practically heartwarming.
Rick Harrison made his politics explicit in
recent months. In an interview on the Mark
Levin Show, a program hosted by one of the
most popular right-wing radiomen this side
of Rush Limbaugh, Harrison assailed the
state for not granting him a permit to film a
Pawn Stars segment on government land (they
blamed, falsely, he believed, the sequester for
the permit denial) and attacked Obamacare
for hurting employers. After beginning to
make an interesting if ill-informed point
about how small banks were treated poorly
by the Obama administration while the big
banks were bailed out, Harrison revealed a
simpler, more sinister endgame: We have the
government that’s down on business, down
on business, people with money. I know
someone else who did that. His name was
Lenin. I mean he blamed the banks, aka the
Jews, he blamed the intelligentsia. Let’s reeducate
This sort of statement is a commonplace
in right-wing U.S. politics, and, along with
Rick Santelli’s infamous screed against loser
homeowners who couldn’t keep up with
their mortgages, constitutes the worldview of
the Tea Party Right: the beleaguered miIDle
against the underclass and its elite allies. But
coming from the Pawn Stars star, the statement
brought to mind an exchange from the film
Repo Man, Alex Cox’s 1984 punk classic.
Bud, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells his
repo trainee Otto (Emilio Estevez), Credit
is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is
founded on. Do you think they give a damn
about their bills in Russia?
Otto: They don’t pay bills in Russia, it’s all
Bud: All free? Free my ass. What are you, a
fuckin’ commie? Huh?
Otto: No, I ain’t no commie.
Bud: Well, you better not be. I don’t want
no commies in my car. No Christians either.
These shows and the seedy corner of the
economy they depict aren’t just about winners
and losers, but strivers and failures, the bold
and the broken. In this universe, there are
simply some people on the right side of the
asymmetrical information divide, and others
born to be conned. And there is no mutual aid
without interest.
Nick Serpe is the online editor of Dissent.
Copyright of Dissent (00123846) is the property of University of Pennsylvania Press and its
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