By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; C01
If you broaden the definition of American execeptionalism to include rooting through the contents of abandoned storage units or spending your last few dollars to trot off to the Alaskan wilderness to backhoe for gold, then America is looking mighty exceptional indeed. At least on television.
A&E's "Storage Wars" (premiering Wednesday) and Discovery's "Gold Rush: Alaska" (premiering Friday) are really just further ruminations on the perceived crises of national masculinity and consumer confidence.
Both shows feature a gang of frustrated, fringy, tatoodled, middle-aged men on a hunt for easy wealth - or a last stab at financial security. Both shows also have their moments of absorbing drama and distasteful levels of bullheadedness, set against an American backdrop that once again seems mere steps away from the full-on, Cormac McCarthy-style apocalypse.
In "Storage Wars," we follow several men (and one woman, who is married to one of them) who attempt to make their living by chasing auctions at storage-unit facilities in dusty Southern California burbs. Here, under a blazing sun in the Great Recession's land of extreme foreclosures, an auctioneer cuts off the lock of unlucky units where the fee has gone unpaid for at least 90 days.
The door rolls upward and these modern-day scavengers get a look at the mysteries within. The bidders aren't allowed to touch or examine what's inside; they have to rely on their foraging instinct. This is, of course, a seductive process to watch: What could be in those cardboard boxes near the back? (I know: old Christmas garlands.)
But wait - are those foot pedals part of a valuable Hammond B3 or just another junk organ? "Storage Wars's" characters try to outwit one another by driving up the bids for what in almost every case winds up being worthless stuff.
Some of them have been at this game well before the economy tanked and have prospered at it. Alpha dog Darrell Sheets shows off his home, resplendent with the treasures he's lucked into at auctions, including two framed sketches he swears are Picassos.
His chief competitor, consignment dealer Dave Hester, shows up with thousands of dollars in ready cash and an eye for high-ticket items. He pounces when another unit reveals the industrial mixers, ovens and other equipment that apparently belonged to a failed restaurateur. For a $2,600 winning bid, he eventually inventories some $20,000 worth of equipment ready to resell.
The other bidders we meet in "Storage Wars" are newer to the game and more susceptible to its bad luck. Barry Weiss pins his hopes on an auction of clothing items that once belonged to hip-hop impresario Suge Knight. Thrift-store owner Jarrod Schulz keeps overpaying for units, much to his wife Brandi's chagrin; once the contents are in his possession, the shiniest thing turns out to be a fake Movado watch.
What's interesting about "Storage Wars" is that it airs on the same network that brings us "Hoarders" and "Intervention"; it takes place in the same baked-and-cracked suburban landscapes of despair often seen in those shows, and yet it lacks the central integrity of either. We learn in "Storage Wars" that there are 2 billion square feet of storage-unit space across the land. But barely a word is said about the poor suckers who've lost all their stuff, nor is there any opportunity to discuss the full-blown epidemic of affluenza that caused the storage industry to boom.
Instead, "Storage Wars" portrays the misery of others as a twisted opportunity for the rest of us to get a leg up. It reveals how off-kilter our values have become, in both the moral and economic sense. Is anything really worth a darn anymore?
Yes: baseball cards.
"Storage Wars" seems like a spa day compared to the misery and depressing ineptitude seen in "Gold Rush: Alaska, " which depicts the almost Homerian journey of Todd Hoffman, a 41-year-old Oregon man, and his obstinate 65-year-old father, Jack, who sell everything they own (not much) and convince five other men to leave their families behind and accompany them to southeastern Alaska, where they've leased 160 acres to hunt for gold. "Like my forefathers did," Todd says. "They [manned] up and they went into the frontier."
Yes, gold. In the very same region where thousands of late-19th-century prospectors panned for naught and where Sarah Palin's reality show now dispenses a limitless supply of patriotic platitudes. The men are lured there by the current $1,200-per-ounce gold prices. They all agreed to work without pay for an entire summer for the chance to share in the gold they hope to find, and to also share in whatever dubious fortune being on TV may bring.
After hauling many tons of bulldozing equipment up to remote Porcupine Creek (a 10-day endeavor that involves several close calls and heated arguments), the men set about building a camp and making testosterone-laden proclamations about the state of the world we live in. "There isn't one man in America, if he's got anything inside him, who wouldn't want to be here with us," Jack says. Aided by 21st-century dozers, the men have only three months of summertime weather to discover a "glory hole," leaving randomly gouged trenches all over the woods.
"Gold Rush: Alaska" gives off an eerie yet irresistible vibe of the past as present. Like so many lusty pioneers before them, the men have followed a get-rich-quick scheme in favor of . . . well, not much else.
They are between the ages of 34 and 55, and many sport facial hair that would guarantee them work at a Wild West amusement park. Each tells a story of marginalized woe familiar to anyone who's watched the news lately: job layoffs, uninsured medical problems, home foreclosure. The team's chief mechanic, James Harness, hopes that they find enough gold to pay for surgery to fix his neck and ankle, which he injured years ago. For now he staves off the pain with morphine.
The bears immediately surround the Hoffman party - drawn there, no doubt, by the scent of graham crackers and concocted drama. Gold or no gold, what creature can resist the smell of reality TV?
Storage Wars (30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on A&E
Gold Rush: Alaska (one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.