Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Vulture Variety Hour

You may have realized it by now. You may not have. But it's pretty hard not to see it once it's pointed out: the hot genre on TV right now is the vulture show.

What is a vulture show? Simple: as a result of the weak economy, many people end up selling, trading, or sometimes outright forfeiting valuable property. A vulture show chronicles the people who acquire that property, usually for the purpose of reselling it at a profit, which means much focus is placed on the price paid for the property and the sell-on value. The people acquiring the property are, of course, the eponymous 'vultures', which is just going to be the catch-all term we use to describe these people as a group for the remainder of this article. That's really the most accurate term: swooping in to gain off the remains of others. Any additional connotations... well, we'll get into that.

You can name a whole slew of these shows off the top of your head. Storage Wars. Storage Wars Texas. Pawn Stars. Cajun Pawn Stars. Auction Kings. Storage Hunters. Baggage Battles. Hardcore Pawn. Barter Kings. Lizard Lick Towing. Operation Repo. American Pickers. Picked Off. And Discovery Channel's new offering, Property Wars.

Now, if you can manage to focus on just the stuff, the money and the personalities of the various vultures, it's all good clean fun. But you have to keep in mind, the goods involved didn't pop up out of thin air or grow out of the ground. The producers cannot possibly have just planted all this stuff day in and day out. It all had a previous owner. The previous owners are often relegated to background roles, treated in these shows as just a silly little thing that ties the show together, as though they were the long-lost points from Whose Line Is It Anyway?

And that's where the problems start.

I'm not necessarily averse to the genre; I watch and enjoy a few of these shows myself. However, the previous owners do play a part for me. The reasons the stuff may be relinquished by the previous owners are varied. Sometimes they just don't want or need something anymore. That's cool. But not everyone is giving up these items on a timeframe convenient to them. As the reasons get more desperate, the more I root for them. The harder it becomes to see them being taken advantage of. Even when the justification of 'well, they should have paid their bills' is taken into account, we've all seen just how easy it is to fall behind through no fault of one's own. Cars break down. People get sick. It's rarely explored as to why things have gotten to the point where the vulture has stepped in. We just know that they have. People are already miserable enough right now. I don't really want to see yet another American fall through the cracks. But in most vulture shows, it's almost inherent that they do. Often the fact that they already have is the reason the vultures are there in the first place.

The first vulture show I watch manages to skirt this entirely: Auction Kings. I mentioned additional connotations to the word 'vulture', but they don't apply here. The intent is the same: acquire someone's stuff and resell it- but an auction house doesn't work the same way other vultures do. There's a much classier reputation to the endeavor than there is to other types of auctions (the storage auction, the sheriff's auction) or to pawn shops or any of the other vulture professions. Remember, Sotheby's is an auction house. Auction houses get a much higher proportion of clientele who are not selling due to necessity, or if it is, the necessity is something like 'I need to de-clutter my home'. (Which is the usual clientele of pickers.) In addition, the auction house has zero incentive to stiff the previous owner. Unless the item has been picked and paid for before ever making it to the auction house, the auction house is working on consignment, working directly for the previous owner- marketing the item, rounding up potential bidders, and squeezing as much money as humanly possible out of those bidders. A high auction price means that not only does the auction house make money, but the previous owner does as well. So even if you keep the previous owner in mind, you're still on the same page as the show.

And in any case, the staff of the auction house in question, Gallery 63 in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, is just too darned likeable. The on-air employees- which judging from the website appears to be all the employees- all get along famously and are all generally good-natured. There's so little on-air drama between them that in Season 3, the show had to go out and follow a couple of wise-guy pickers from Michigan- even though Gallery 63 has a picker in-house- just to have some semblance of personality conflict. Add in the organizations consigning items to raise money for charity, and this is totally harmless viewing, no guilt necessary.

Then there's Storage Wars. Here's where guilt starts entering the equation. Again, I watch. I've tossed out more YUUUUUUPS than I care to count. But the show almost entirely skips around the fact that the storage lockers had a previous owner who has now lost their stuff. The opening exposition, 'When storage units are abandoned', is often the end of that uncomfortable issue for the duration of an episode. When it's not, it's brought up only in the context of 'yes, yes, but was their stuff any good?' Which is almost by necessity; it's not as if you can go track down the owner of the storage locker and interview them in the episode where their locker goes up. The viewer- and for that matter, the buyers- are not told who even had the locker except on a single occasion where one was filled with nice furniture and sold for charity. Other than that, the buyers are forced to make their own guesses. On only two occasions, save for the charity auction, has a previous owner ever been specifically identified by a buyer, and both times, the previous owner was a celebrity: on one occasion Suge Knight was identified by buyer Barry Weiss, and on the other, buyer Nabila Harris was said to have made her name off buying a locker offscreen that was owned by Paris Hilton.

The show would almost certainly be at least a bit more depressing if the previous owners as a whole got taken into account, in particular the people who it is speculated had their entire house in the locker, and especially the person- pegged as a hoarder- who had six lockers full of stuff sold off.

With Pawn Stars, that's not possible to avoid. Not entirely. It's a pawn shop. People have a certain, not entirely-unwarranted image of pawn shops, an image played up on competing show Hardcore Pawn. Not that lengths aren't gone to to try and tone down the uncomfortability. It's said that 60% of the business of the pawn shop in question, Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, is pawning: getting a loan in exchange for an item that is then lost if the money is not repaid within a certain time period. But pawns are rarely shown on Pawn Stars- a lot of the same people come in to pawn the same items over and over and a lot of the pawners don't want to be on camera. You can hardly blame them. Showing up in a pawn shop carries a lot of down-on-your-luck connotations, typically accurate, and that's not how anyone wants to show up on national television.

Even when the pawns are scrubbed out, and the focus is placed on people looking to sell their items outright, and even when you've set the show in one of if not the nicest pawn shop in Vegas... it's still a pawn shop in Vegas. You're still not entirely safe. For every person that comes in looking to sell something for gambling money (a notion somewhat squirm-worthy in its own right), there's a person needing to raise money for an unspecified-but-serious purpose who finds out their item is worth a tiny fraction of what they had been thinking it was worth for most of their life, if it's worth anything at all. I see some nice old lady needing to raise money, get told that her family heirloom is worthless and ask the camera in near-tears what she's going to do now, and I just want to reach through the screen and hug her.

It's still possible for me to watch. But I started watching far after I got into the first two, and even though the employees repeatedly go into what they have to do to maintain an above-board and profitable place of business, that doesn't entirely make it guiltless. There's still a chance everyone walks away happy- when something turns out to be worth more than the seller thought and they get more than they were hoping for, namely- but they're still, inherently, really close to the line.

A line crossed by Property Wars. There's just no getting around the ugliness of it all here. Even if you could, let's not because I've already committed myself to making you squirm in your seat as much as possible today. The property in question is real estate. Foreclosed homes in the Phoenix area. The very type of item that got us into this mess in the first place. The buyers profiled here are vultures in every sense of the word. The previous owners are people who have just lost their homes. How one could possibly be rooting for the buyers on this show is beyond me. The option to root for the previous owner is not possible- after all, here's their home being sold at a foreclosure sale. It's sad to profile, it's sadder to see trailers depicting one of the buyers screaming "WHO'S THE KING NOW, BABY!"

The properties can't be entered until the sale is final, and the drama of the show is in what's behind the door. No matter what's behind the door, it's depressing to contemplate. You might find a nice home, with a lot of nice things in it. But that's not going to stay that way, as Lisa Ling explains here.

And on the other end of the spectrum, you will, statistically as often as not, find a home that has been completely and deliberately trashed by the previous owner, a possibility also touched upon, though briefly, in the trailer. Fixtures removed, holes in the walls, garbage all over, spraypainted messages from the previous owner. All the pain, all the sense of loss by someone who has just lost their home- and you know that nobody with more than one home is going to be doing anything of the sort- made manifest in an orgy of frustrated, vengeful destruction, invisible until it's too late. Does it depress the value? Absolutely. Does the previous owner care anymore? Not in the slightest.

How much can they trash the home? The all-time champion probably comes out of Merced, California:

There's no happy ending anywhere in sight. There's nobody to root for. There's no way to come out of the show feeling any better about anything or anyone save for a brazen, naked worship of money. I can't watch that.

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