What the Sell?: TV Review

Not nearly gritty or ruthless enough to hold interest.

TLC's new pawn shop reality show focuses too much on the antics of the store owners and not enough on the treasures being haggled over.

So, how much is it worth? For reality TV shows whose subject matter concerns the world of second hand goods, that’s the abiding, make-or-break question.

As we've learned from years of Antiques Roadshow appraisals, though an object's provenance, its owner’s heartwarming personal anecdotes, or the expert's own personality quirks do help to enliven the treasure hunt at the heart of the genre that has been likened to recession porn, there’s just no substitute for a climax in which a lampshade bought for $20 at a garage gets turned around for the equivalent of new Lamborghini Aventador.

What the Sell?, TLC's latest iteration of expert-meets-novice, hard-times entertainment, comes to us from Executive Producers Brent Montgomery and Colby Gaines. Decidedly less gritty than Pawn Stars, the duo's previous show in which compulsive gamblers and down-and-out Vegas types hawk their jewelry for quick cash, What the Sell? is set in the well-to-do Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois, a far cry from Sin City, to be sure.

At The Perfect Thing, a 9,000 square-foot antiques emporium, Judy, her adult daughter, Kate, and Judy’s elderly mother, Gloria, cater to a wholesome clientele looking to unload an eclectic array of hand-me-downs and heirlooms. Lead by Judy, the multi-generational, matrilineal proprietors are personable enough, in a Midwestern kind of way, but beneath all their folksy aphorisms and familial rapport is the inescapable fact that the three women are making a living off of the people who come through the front door. The problem is, you're never quite sure who you’re rooting for as Kate and her partners haggle over such booty as a Nick Klein rocking horse made of actual pony hide, a 10-million year old dinosaur egg, or a Turkmenistan bridal headdress.

Selling your antiques to a dealer is not a whole lot smarter than hitting the pawn shop in times of financial need (as the show’s producers must know), so when Kate gets the rocking horse for $1,000 and, out of earshot of the seller, confides that she plans to sell it for $2,000, you can’t help but wanting to shake the seller and yell, "Have you not heard of e-Bay?"

In a nod to the inherent tension of Kate's dual role as cuddly pussy cat and ravenous shark, she even addresses the camera to explain the basics of capitalism. "Sometimes people might say that our profit margin seems high, but I have to pay the rent," she says. "I have to pay my staff. It takes money to run a shop this size."

Fair enough, but unlike Pawn Stars, or even Storage Wars, the treasure hunting show in which buyers do everything they can to screw the other guy over in pursuit of the highest possible profit margin, Kate and Co. just don’t come off as all that savvy or ruthless. As a result, the show feels about as exciting as macramé porn.

According to Judy, her family has succeeded in turning the adage "one man's trash is another man's treasure into a successful business." But as the show's vignettes progress, it's clear that a more fitting tagline would be "one man's attempt to make some easy cash is a another woman’s expenses-covering mark up."

While it is endearing to watch Kate make fun of her mother's grotesque posture as she rides the rocking horse, and grandma Gloria's attempts at internet dating are good for a couple of laugh lines, all that yuck-yucking seems to distract from what should be the real star of shows like this: the treasure itself. While the recession may technically be over, we still crave our Lotto jackpot moments, even in Wheaton.

So, back to that fundamental question: How much is What the Sell? worth? Unfortunately, maybe not as much as one would hope to get.

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