By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; C01
If nothing else, the return of TruTV's "Hardcore Pawn" is appropriately timed to the grimness that can sometimes accompany the week after Christmas. As trees are dragged out to the garbage and consumers are dragged out to the mall to exchange unwanted presents and to binge on gift cards, the world sort of resembles one big reality show.
"Hardcore Pawn," in a small way, reminds us just how much worse things can be when it comes to the ancient arts of transaction, usury and the time-honored disdain between vendor and customer.
But that's also lending far too much thematic bling to this show. Back for a second season Tuesday night (even though its first season ended mere months ago), "Hardcore Pawn" is a cheap, depressing, even unctuous exercise that raises all sorts of concerns that it never addresses about the real biggies: class, race, ethnicity, money, family. And it's not even terribly original, seeming to piggyback on the History channel's popular reality show, the Las Vegas-based "Pawn Stars."
Ostensibly about the crazy day-to-day life at American Jewelry and Loan - a large, family-run pawnshop on Detroit's storied 8 Mile Road - "Hardcore Pawn" is preoccupied with all the wrong story lines that take place on the wrong side (the safe side) of the plexiglass.
The show centers on the ironically named owner, Les Gold, a true-to-stereotype pawnshop owner with a mustache and a balding mini-mullet of curls, and Les's wife, Lili, adult children Seth and Ashley, and a few of the trusted employees who run the place.
It also revels in the general malaise of Detroit, as a steady stream of unlucky customers waft in and out, hoping either to pawn their goods or to benefit from the misfortune of those who've pawned past the point of no return. Les seems to enjoy the possibility that anything and everything is for sale, talking the sad sellers down in price. This includes the desperate offering of a seemingly deranged man who tries to pawn a DVD player that, the man babbles, is "a transistor that communicates with aliens!"
"Show me," Les says, hoping to at least acquire a DVD player for 10 bucks.
"You done broke it," the man screams and demands retribution.
Actually, what the man is demanding (and receiving) is a few seconds of TV time, which culminate in Les having him tossed out of the store by one of the bouncers. Everyone in American Jewelry and Loan, whether customer or employee, mugs for the camera and shows us what they've learned from watching "Cops" and a host of other parking-ticket and pawnshop reality shows.
The way the show is made all but obstructs a possibly better premise: Perhaps the activities within any American pawnshop could tell us something new about . . . well, there's the problem. The pawnshop has become this recession's easiest cliche setting; viewers aren't crying out for more shows about the junk trade and the iffy state of the economy.
We're certainly not crying out for more shows in which entrepreneurial family members gin up some conflict among themselves to satisfy a producer or lift ratings. Watching Gold's children bicker through the workday is a waste of everyone's time.
But what does interest me about "Hardcore Pawn" is the show's loathsome, 19th-century-style regard for race. The black Detroiters who filter through the store, demanding service and railing against Les's strict no-refund policy, seem so much more interesting than the Gold family. Yet they are reduced to the role of the great herd, made to seem as if they lack identity or worth.
Some of the customers' faces display an emptiness and despair that indicate years of social and economic neglect. It seems bizarre and even callous that a TV crew's members could spend as much time as they've spent here and still decide that the Golds are the real story. The customers who cause a fuss and act crazy are in turn exploited once more, furthering Les's tough-guy fantasy of himself.
Yet there are other people in the store, most of them minorities, who are not here to make fools of themselves on TV. See them in the background? With those haunted eyes? The ones waiting in long lines, spent down to their last bits of Wal-Mart jewelry and video game consoles? Tell me there isn't a more true TruTV show there.
Hardcore Pawn (30 minutes) returns Tuesday at 10 p.m. on TruTV.