"When storage units are abandoned in the great state of Texas, the treasures within are put up for auction."
Initially entertaining disposable junk TV...about junk. A&E has released Storage Wars Texas: Season One, a two-disc, 16-episode collection of the breakout A&E reality series' premiere 2011 season. A low-rent, high-concept reality show that would have been inconceivable as a viable series twenty years ago, is now one of (if not the) highest-rated show on the Arts & Entertainment network...so go figure. Mindless television crack. Some bonus footage is included for these sharp transfers.
The set-up is simple...but the draw is elemental. Apparently, the law in Texas states that if a customer fails to pay the rent on his or her storage unit for three months running, the storage facility has the right to auction off the contents for back payment. That's where the buyers of Storage Wars Texas come in. The storage unit owners contract with auctioneers like Walt "The Colonel" Cade to guide buyers, professional and amateurs, through one-day sales where cash money in your pocket is the only calling card needed to get you inside. One by one, the delinquent, surrendered storage units have their locks cut off, and the buyers have only five minutes to peek inside to see if the visible items are worth bidding on―no one is allowed inside the units, and no one is allowed to touch or move boxes or items around to see what else might be hidden. Regular bidders featured on Storage Wars Texas include Moe Prigoff, a practicing podiatrist and veteran storage lot buyer who looks for unusual items for his antiques store; wholesale warehouse owners Ricky Smith and Bubba Smith (uncle and nephew), known as "The Rangers," a couple of good 'ol boys sharp as tacks when it comes to making a profit reselling found treasure; abrasive yapper Victor "The Outsider" Rjesnjansky, originally from Long Island and now transplanted among the "yokels" of Texas, as he calls them; Lesa "The Boss" Lewis and her assistant, Jerry Simpson, who runs a run-down thrift store and who can't seem to keep her hands any gold jewelry she finds in the units; and former Dallas Cowboy defensive back Roy Williams, a not-too-bright newcomer to the game of storage unit hunting who gets the fever when he tags along with the "The Rangers" at an auction.
When I first heard about spin-off Storage Wars Texas's host series, Storage Wars, back in 2010, I distinctly remember thinking, "that has to be the dumbest, most boring idea yet for a so-called 'reality' series." I mean...the notion of people bidding on junky, abandoned storage units? That's going to be entertaining how (can you imagine a producer trying to flog that idea back during the heyday of the "Big Three" networks)? However, with the increasingly splintered TV audience out there that cable first created, narrowly-focused, cheaply-produced entries like Storage Wars Texas can find profitability with just three or four million viewers―a marketing construct that's not at all dissimilar to the content of the show itself: hustlers buy discarded, abandoned items for relative chump change in the hopes of fobbing them off on someone else at a profit. I did catch a marathon of Storage Wars and Storage Wars Texas episodes last year (I'm not a committed, regular viewer of either show), however, and I must write that they did maintain my interest for a few hours...until like most other junk TV, I got bored and tuned out.
Certainly the appeal of Storage Wars Texas is primitive and not too hard to divine. Most of us have had that thrill of thinking we've found some long-lost, forgotten "treasure" in an attic or basement or at a flea market or garage sale...only to discover it's really a piece of junk. So Storage Wars Texas's continual assertion that thar's gold in them thar storage units keeps the viewer guessing about what these bidders might find, while we wonder if we could do the same thing. Add to that the inherent attraction of Storage Wars Texas's auction format; plainly put, we want to see who "wins," along with enjoying the games these bidders play to psych-out their opponents: trash talking before the auctions, misdirection as to what might be a valuable unit; tapping out an opponents' cash by getting into a bidding war on an unwanted unit (the bidders' inability to paw around the units prior to the auction only adds to the suspense). Additionally, Storage Wars Texas then exploits the appraisal angle (first used so effectively in PBS' Antiques Roadshow series, and now popular on reality shows like Pawn Stars), where tension is heightened when an item the buyer thinks is valuable is given an official price tag by an expert (it's always better TV when they say it's worthless). At the DNA core of all of this is the American-as-apple-pie appeal of capitalism (a couple of my loyal readers are already dialing up Homeland Security...). At its heart, Storage Wars Texas is about making a fast buck―a theme that any real American cottons to on a subatomic level. These self-sufficient
Appealing as all that is, what keeps Storage Wars Texas from transcending its empty calorie junk TV roots into something more substantial and satisfying, is its too formulaic, too cute, too "safe" approach. Now, you can quibble about how "real" this reality show actually is; according to a quote I found, an unnamed A&E publicist stated, "There is no staging involved. The items uncovered in the storage units are the actual items featured on the show." That sounds convincing...but on closer inspection that statement doesn't rule out that items haven't been put in the units prior to the bidders discovering them. The producers may indeed not be "staging" the bidding and the eventual discoveries by the "unknowing" buyers...but that statement doesn't rule out prior "salting" of the units. Do I care about that? Not really; anyone who thinks "reality" programming is "life as it happens out there," needs to grow up. All Storage Wars Texas has to be is entertaining, not a documentary. And it is that...for awhile.
Because after just a few episodes, it becomes apparent quickly that Storage Wars Texas is all "process" and no "background." The bidding and the buying is compelling on a basic level...but we never get a handle on anything else. Just exactly who are these bidders? What drives them to do what they do? How did they get started? We don't know, because the now-standard "interview inserts" where they address the audience are the same phony, scripted so-called "humorous" throwaways and one-liners that are created by the producers strictly to join up and link the various sequences―they reveal nothing about who these people really are. And I'm sorry, but the producers are missing a golden opportunity in not showing the former owners of the units, and seeing their reactions to having their stuff sold off. Is that a cruel notion? Of course it is...but what else fuels so much of television programming today than coarse maliciousness? Worst of all, there's no sense of danger to Storage Wars Texas' buying and selling. At least in something like Deadliest Catch, there's the implication that someone might lose a finger in a lobster cage or get swept out to sea in a storm, but here....what? All the bidders say they need the dough, but they all seem to have it ready at hand for the auctions. We don't see too much of their stores or homes, so we can't tell if they're hurting financially, or well off. In one episode, Lesa worries about paying a light bill...but we hear no resolution on that one brief glimpse of true reality in this "reality" series. How about showing us a buyer who messes up and actually loses their shirt, or a buyer who squeezes out a winner at the last minute and saves his home and business? How can we root for these 2-dimensional ciphers (the credits say it all with their nicknames: "The Outsider," "The Boss," etc.) when we don't know them, and when their so-called competition is patently phony? Sure an expert says that goofy-looking lamp Moe bought is worth $1700...but that doesn't mean Moe is getting $1700 for it, and yet, at the end of each episode, those appraisals and guesses and hunches are tallied up as money actually earned by the buyers (we never see one customer buy this crap). It's a goof from start to finish: a non-competition with cardboard cut-out characters who suffer no real losses or wins with their storage unit treasures that we the audience can see. And that's why Storage Wars Texas is mindlessly entertaining for an hour or two...before you figure out it's a pre-processed, homogenized―and deeply cynical―sham.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.