On American Pickers

I don’t “binge” TV that much. I prefer to follow the little-and-often approach, mix things up a bit. And anyway, there’s just so much television to watch now – how could anyone be happy to spend an evening watching just one thing?


My wife and I can sweep through a season of The British Baking Show in the blink of an eye. We watched the first season of Killing Eve in a week. And me, personally – I can watch American Pickers forever. And I’m not wholly sure why.

I like APfor so many complicated (or maybe not so complicated) reasons. I like that it’s on the History Channel, which at first glance is some kind of programming error. It’s a reality show where Mike (who looks like he was probably the high school quarterback back in the day) and Frank (the nerdy friend basking in the reflected limelight) travel the country in a large white van, looking for lost treasures for their store back in Le Claire, Iowa.

But the history is in the things they find. In barns, closed stores, sheds, and tumble-down old spider houses across the country, they come across treasure after treasure. Sure, they get a little more excited over a rusted old bike frame, an engine part, or a 50-year-old tin of oil than the average person…but watch it for a couple of hours and the enthusiasm is infectious. It’s history as object – it’s telling the story of America from a unique perspective; not via “great men” or the dates of wars, or however else we think of history. It’s a (mostly) working-class layer of history, showing how normal people lived a 100 or more years ago. And, sure, although finding out how much grandma’s steam-powered machinery is now worth also appeals, I don’t think the Price is Right element is the most compelling part of the show.

For me, it’s incredible to see a way of life that I had no idea existed. Out in the middle of nowhere, or hidden behind houses in tiny towns, are buildings full – often over-full, falling over each other, and spilling outside – of old, rusted, seemingly worthless junk, just waiting for the pickers to come along and give it some value.

Watching hours of this show, I noticed a few things.

First, the majority of these “collectors” are older men. Second, the majority of these men are white. I don’t know how representative the men on the show are, but I can’t help but wonder what it is about older white men that makes them collect a barn or two of junk each. I don’t have an answer, but it’s a question I find compelling. I once worked with someone (an older white male) who loved the show. I suggested to him that a lot of behavior onscreen looked like it might be pathological; these men were hoarding. They were exhibiting signs of something that, on another, more judgmental show, could be made to seem like mental illness. He was offended, and I guess I can see why. Because men collect. I don’t mean that all men collect, or that only men collect, but in my experience, collecting something is integral to a lot of men’s sense of self. And the men on this show are super-collectors. They collect right up to the ceiling, then they build another barn beside the first one to collect some more.

If they weren’t older white men, they might have a harder time avoiding the “hoarder” label, is all I’m saying.

There is a fine line between a fascination and an obsession. It looks to me (a viewer, a fan of the show, and no mental-health professional) that some of these men have crossed the line.

They have imbued in objects a sense of their own selves, of their personal history. They, like many of us, have taken objects and have absorbed them into their personalities. You see that when the boys are making offers for items. Some of the collectors look really uncomfortable at the idea of parting with a spark plug, a handlebar, or a broken tin toy. Often, it’s a wife or a grown-up child, standing beside them, that pushes the sale.

Sometimes, the collector has decided that they are too old to keep collecting; they express a desire to pass along their objects to other (presumably white male) collectors. What American Pickers is showing, without putting too sharp a spotlight on it, is a man who is confronting the reality of his own death, and maybe coping a little better through the tradition of passing along the torch. It’s immensely powerful as television, and an honest (if oblique) view of mortality that is rarely part of primetime television in the US. 

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