Arts and Culture

'Storage Wars'

Reality TV's king of auction-packed adventures. Why a hit? And is it fake?

By Steve Burgess 18 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about culture, high and low and even lower, for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Stars of 'Storage Wars': New season? Yuuuup.

America is a land of patriotic tchotskes. From the Liberty Bell to the Declaration of Independence to the Alamo, Americans love their relics. But if budget cuts ever really take hold, God help them. Faster than you can drawl "Yuuuup," Dave Hester will be down at the Smithsonian asking, "So... what's this Fort Sumter place really worth?"

A&E's Storage Wars is a smash -- the network's most popular show ever and one of the top five on cable. Season 3 begins with back-to-back episodes June 5, bringing us the further auction adventures of Hester, married couple Brandi Passante and Jarrod Schulz, Darrell "Wow Factor" Sheets, and the charming roué Barry Weiss as they compete for the contents of abandoned storage lockers.

Storage Wars is just the most successful among the numerous unlikely spiritual descendants of the Antiques Road Show that include American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and the Storage Wars spin-off Storage Wars Texas. To the old fantasy of finding a fortune in old boxes or cupboards, Storage Wars adds the simmering rivalry of the principals -- some of whom seem to genuinely dislike each other -- the thrill of the auction, the suspense of the locker reveal, and the final verdict of guest specialists who deliver dispassionate verdicts on strange wooden sculptures, cigarette cases, or Star Wars figurines.

But Storage Wars is also notable for what it doesn't do: look back. We learn nothing about whose stuff is being sold and just why they abandoned personal and sometimes very valuable items. Death? Destitution? Who are the mysterious ghosts filling these storage lockers with trash and treasure? It seems the only thing the bidders never find in those lockers is back story.

Is it faked?

On the continuum of artifact-based chronicles, you can put Storage Wars on one end and the 2009 documentary Inside Hana's Suitcase at the opposite. That film followed the efforts of Japanese schoolchildren to trace the history behind a piece of luggage left behind by a young Holocaust victim. Using clues found in the bag they try to discover young Hana's story. No reasonable viewer expects that level of gravitas from A&E's lightweight hit. But the near-complete absence of curiosity about the previous owners is almost spooky. I have disturbing visions of Darrell Sheets down at the Holocaust Museum asking, "OK, but let's cut to the chase -- how much do you think this old bag is worth?"

But that's unfair. Fans of that investigative approach are free to watch History Detectives on PBS. By contrast Storage Wars is set up as a new-model game show. And just as the old game shows had their scandals, Storage Wars attracts a lot of skepticism from viewers. Like appraisers passing judgement on a Tiffany lamp, hundreds of punters take to the A&E chat boards to bray, "Fake!"

Most of the online carping does not rise above the level of, "Of course it's fake you idiots it's TV don't be so stoopid," or: “In Season 2 episode six there's a box on the left and in the next shot it's on the right. Fake!"

But legitimate doubts can certainly arise, particularly concerning the remarkable number of bizarre and fascinating objects that come out of nooks and crannies. Are the lockers seeded beforehand? A storage centre manager named Nick weighed in on the A&E boards: "Last week, we held an auction of 19 units. Dave Hester and Darrell Sheets were in attendance. As manager, I was required to keep record of the entire auction. I can with all certainty tell you that none of this show is fake. There are several episodes where the unit is mostly filled with useless contents. But why would you put hours of horrible units in a show? In the three days they were here, there were two cameramen. They did not re-film anything."

A poster named Joeliath runs through the claims and arguments about locker seeding and then applies the Occam's razor method of seeking the simplest explanation: "It takes six assumptions to support the hypothesis that the show is a fake. It takes only two assumptions (that someone had the idea to make a show about storage auctions and that the show uses editing) to support the hypothesis that the show is real."

No conspiratorial mindset is required to question some aspects of the program. As each locker is examined a counter at the bottom of the screen totals the value of its contents. Perhaps in the interests of simplicity the producers tend to take whatever the buyers say at face value. "This old kitchen table is worth $200, easy," says Darrell. And the counter goes: Ka-ching!

Who is Barry Weiss?

Perhaps the biggest Storage Wars mystery is: Where did dapper Barry Weiss get all the money that allows him to show up at every auction in a different funky vehicle and matching outfit, usually accompanied by a psychic, night vision goggles, or a flying spy camera, making bids that usually culminate in a pile of empty boxes and disappointed hopes? Many have assumed he must have made his cash in the kind of show business he so clearly excels at. In fact the answer is not rock 'n roll, but radicchio. Weiss told AOL TV that he and his brother were in the vegetable business. "I did an interview once and I mentioned being in produce," Weiss said, "and I think sometimes people just don't listen and assumed it was 'producer.'"

Most of the show's implausibility can be chalked up to judicious editing. Auctions won by other bidders, lockers full of nothing but old clothes, and most of the tedious business of unloading and hauling is neatly removed, making the whole process seem less like the labour-intensive, low-return prospecting it actually is.

During a special round table interview episode the Storage Wars principals described the growing crowds at auctions and the people who arrive with an unrealistic idea of how the second-hand business works. "Every day is like moving out of your house," says Schulz.

Yet with this sort of publicity, a boom in storage auction popularity was inevitable. A May 14 story in the Brandon Sun detailed a Manitoba auction that drew a huge crowd, including of course the guy who snapped up lockers while imitating Hester's trademark "Yuuuuup" bid.

Good luck to them all. But perhaps the only real lesson one should take away from Storage Wars is this: A long line of obnoxious dudes in baseball caps is waiting to trash your entire life and sell the remains for $200. So pay your storage bills.  [Tyee]

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