American Pickers see the junk lot as half full

American Pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz in your crazy great uncle’s backyard

 A New York Times columnist has written that the success of the History Channel’s American Pickers lies in its “rugged approach to the traditionally genteel antiques world.” For me, the show’s real interest lies in picker Mike Wolfe’s riveting obliviousness to the precarious mental state and marital dysfunction of his hosts.

In most American Pickers episodes I have seen (and I have seen many), there is some display of this singular talent of Mike’s. But his most impressive performance to date appears in “Boys’ Toys,” an episode that aired earlier this year.

In it, the Delirious Duo heads to Tennessee to pay a visit to a man who is lightheartedly characterized as a “self-confessed hoarder.” As they drive to their destination, Mike and Frank snipe at one another and banter in their customary way. (The topic on this occasion is recycling. Frankie wants to add a bin in the back of the van to keep their empties, but Mike doesn’t want to give up the “real estate.”) It is in this jaunty tenor, with a bed of comical music fading out, that the Antique Archaeology van rolls into the episode’s first rural hellscape.

“She’s Trying to Sell My World”

The isolated house in the woods is a series of connected boxes pitched at various heights. It exterior has a log cabin motif (possibly intentionally). A moss-covered Galaxy 500 hulks in the nearby trees. The residents are a middle-aged husband and wife. Husband and “self-confessed hoarder” Brian is a lean, bald dude wearing camouflage pants and a T-shirt with a large of image Gandhi on it, under which is the unexpected caption “Another skinhead for peace.” His wife, Kristen, is a dumpling of a woman with a ’60s bobby-do the color of vacuumed-up cat hair and a sleeveless periwinkle button shirt layered over a blue paisley wrap.

From the beginning Kristen takes charge, greeting the Pickers and showing them the way as husband Brian shuffles along, seemingly unsure of where to stand. She tells the visitors enthusiastically, “Make us a good price, you can have everything in here!” It is at that moment that Brian, through his patchy orange beard, utters the most heartbreaking line I have ever heard on television: “She’s trying to sell my world.”

These are not lightly-chosen words. This is not, “Well, yeah, you know, kind of.” The line, or its equivalent, has crossed his mind before. Now, less stalwart hosts might be moved to pity for this wiry man who has surrounded himself with semi-precious objects as a bulwark against the painful meaninglessness of the world. Or they might gaze skeptically at his melodramatic affect. But it’s going to take more than that to throw ol’ Mike and Frank off the trail of “rusty gold” (as they call it). Without so much as an awkward pause, Mike starts braying loudly, points at Kristen and shouts to Frankie, “I like her!”

Kristen proceeds to tell the pickers that they have a grandchild on the way, and that is why there is an urgency to clear space and make money. Quietly, Brian offers: “The pressure’s too much.” More laughter.

The Self-Confession

In an interview with the couple in their cramped kitchen, Brian says that he has been collecting things since he was a kid. Kristen interjects, “So you’re admitting you’re a hoarder?” With no reply, she laughs a terrible laugh, shrugging her shoulders together and leaning backwards in a grotesque parody of hilarity. Brian remains stone-faced, sweating in the Tennessee heat. “Yeah, to a certain extent,” he says. The admission seems to give him strength. He attempts a faint smile: The man is trying.

The Pick

Mike and Frank have dispensed with the preliminaries. It’s time to pick. There is the usual deranged assembly of overflowing boxes crowding the small rooms. They root around a collection of vintage aviator sunglasses, an Elvis painting and a Batscope toy before Frankie breaks the ice:

“What would you do on both of these items?” He holds up the Batscope and a Charlie Weaver bartender toy, both from the 1960s.

Brian is clearly taken off-guard. “On both of ’em?” He stalls for time, scratching his beard, hands on his hips, shifting his weight from leg to leg, “Hmmm. $25 for him.” He is not ready to think about selling his items two at a time.

Somehow Mike has detected the tension in the room, and he attempts a joke to disperse it.  “He’s the Bundle Master,” he says, referring to Frankie’s tactic of trying to get a good price by bundling items. But the terror in Brian’s hard blue eyes is not diminished one jot. Mike laughs nervously and continues beaming into space, red-faced. Kristen comes in and slaps Brian on the chest from behind, in a gesture somewhere between that of a loving wife and a jockey. “C’mon, let’s go, honey, let’s go!”

Brian agrees to $30 on both items. His hand flies to his mouth nervously as he looks at Kristen for approval.

How Much for Your Lady?

A subplot of this encounter is the flirtation going on between Kristen and Frankie. While the boys are bidding on their toys, she coyly asks how much Frankie would cost. In a cutaway to the kitchen interview, Kristen calls Frankie “charming,” a “teddy bear,” and says she’d “keep him.”

Her husband Brian does not seem as amused by these exchanges as the viewing audience is meant to be. “You’re bein’ a little forward with him, huh?” Brian asks. There is the sense that if there weren’t a camera crew in the kitchen, this conversation between husband and wife would be appreciably less breezy.

Back to the Van

Mike and Frankie clamber back to the white van with their spoils. The banter about the recycling campaign resumes, as the little house is left behind in the distance.

They are off to another pick. Off to another old farmer with a collection of lamps that are for some reason outside of his house, or to a veteran trapped by three acres of oil cans. And in Mike’s exchanges, he will again gleefully ignore any sign that all is not as it should be in the household. In his on-location interview, he will again be practically hopping up and down, gushing, “This is an AMAZING guy! The stuff he’s seen: the history is just OOZING out of this guy’s hatband. And that Debbie’s a pistol!”

1. “Boys’ Toys.” 2012. The History Channel website. Oct 10 2012, 11:08 http://www.history.com/shows/american-pickers/episodes/current-season

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