Reality TV has a lot to answer for. Its contributions to the ongoing debasement of popular culture are well-documented. Shows that celebrate our moral weaknesses and reward bad behavior with celebrity and riches are, to put it mildly, unfortunate.
But there is a whole subgenre of reality TV that is actually educational and generally celebratory of the human spirit. These shows, which, oddly enough, generally appeal to men, explore nature, adventure, and exotic jobs. They’re not smutty, exploitative or condescending. You can watch them with both your kids and your parents.
At the top of the heap is “Pawn Stars,” The History Channel’s mega-hit about a Las Vegas pawn shop that will wrap up its fifth season next week. This is a show that actually has mildly redeeming social value.
One thing “Pawn Stars” is NOT about is the actual business of operating a pawnshop. The core pawn business, with its focus on lending money to people who have no other access to cash, is hardly in evidence on the show. What we have instead is a souped-up version of “Antiques Roadshow” in which people come to the store to cash out on their collectibles.
The store in question -- The World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop -- is owned by the show’s star Rick Harrison, a good-natured but hard-nosed entrepreneur. His co-stars are his dad (“The Old Man”), his son, (“Big Hoss”) and the surrogate son Chumlee, a slow-witted man-child who provides the comic relief. The producers cleverly play on the family dynamics of these men, with one generation always at odds with another, and everyone exasperated by the antics of Chumlee.
But the real appeal of the series is not the Harrison family; it’s the buying and selling of historical curiosities. The show follows a rigid format: four or five sellers bring in a family treasure (e.g., a photo of Jesse James, a German dueling pistol, a letter from Andrew Jackson, a classic juke box), the Harrisons bring in an expert to appraise it, and then there‘s a negotiation. Since there is usually some suspense over what the item is actually worth, the show is surprisingly addictive.
I don’t want to overstate the educational value of the show but you can actually learn a lot, in a number of areas, watching “Pawn Stars.”
Of course since this is the History Channel, there’s an important historical element to the show. “Pawn Stars” does not deliver the kind of high-end historical sweep you get from Ken Burns, but over time the show does illuminate the cultural, technological and other historical trends that are covered in the broad historical surveys. As Rick Harrison says in the show’s introduction, each item has a story -- and every time the shop buys something, we get a brief mini-lecture on why it is an important artifact. Through this pointillistic approach, every purchase -- every autograph, vintage motorcycle, military weapon -- adds a little bit to our understanding of U.S. and European history.
Further, “Pawn Stars” is the best show on television for demonstrating the basic principles of free enterprise capitalism. Over and over again Rick Harrison emphasizes that he will not buy an object if he doesn’t think he can make a profit, which seems to be in the 30% to 50% range. There are certain political circles where 30%-50% profits are considered “obscene,” but Rick is unapologetic about needing these margins to cover rent, salary and other costs of doing business.
You can also learn a lot about negotiating by watching “Pawn Stars” -- lessons that can be applied to buying a house, setting a salary or selling a comic book collection:
In the end, though, what’s most educational about “Pawn Stars” is seeing human nature on display. Some sellers are greedy, others are grateful to sell for whatever they can get. Some sellers are sentimental about their family heirlooms and others can’t wait to unload them. Ultimately we are reminded that life is a series of transactions -- and the best transactions are the ones where everyone feels like a winner.