Hearing the premise of A&E's reality show, "Storage Wars," one would hardly guess that it's the stuff of great television, but I would argue that it's one of the best shows on cable in 2012.
It's pretty simple: four sets of buyers are followed as they bid on, then recover what stuff of value they can from abandoned storage units throughout California. While it doesn't seem like the making of high drama, it's presented as if it is. Units are sold in a carnival-style auction to the highest bidder, but only after the unit's lock has been cracked by a giant bolt cutter, and the unit has been opened and visually inspected for exactly five minutes (no touching) by the potential buyers. Kibbitzing ensues. Then we watch as they see if the winning bidder can make more money than they paid for the unit.
The conceit of the show is twofold: First, there is the competition, which is broken up into two parts. At the top of the show we watch to see who can win the storage unit that's on offer. There's always some friendly (and sometimes over-the-top) competition during the bidding process, which serves to highlight the various personalities. And at the very end of the program, we see who has made the most profit. There are always winners and losers.
But the soft middle of "Storage Wars," the part that makes it more interesting than the competition at the beginning or the end, is the stuff in the units, and its value (or lack thereof). Like "Hoarders" (but in a fun, not psychologically intense way) and "American Pickers," related to the new "Shipping Wars" show, and going all the way back to "Antiques Roadshow," "Storage Wars" is all about the American relationship to our consumer ephemera. For many of us, the stuff that fills our homes, cars and workplaces — all the cheap junk that we can (and do) buy eventually becomes a burden. After decades of excess, I know I'm not the only person looking at a burgeoning closet and a packed basement and feeling overwhelmed.
But it's hard, isn't it? Because something in there is probably worth something, and if making a fortune from random junk that's been sitting around for a couple decades isn't part of the American Dream, I don't know what is. And so "Storage Wars" shows us the error of our ways, but also the rewards for the stuff-sifters. In some cases, the sifting results in serious cash returns for everything from dance club equipment from China (close to 50,000) to old gas-station promotional air compressors to the more expected 19th-century jewelry, loveseats and safes filled with coins.
But mostly we see that 97 percent of what we put in storage units (most are filled with stuff we can't fit in our homes), that we pay years of rent for, that we actually work to house — is just landfill fodder. If "Storage Wars" doesn't make you contemplate the waste in your own life, you're just not paying attention. I'll say that after watching a season of "Storage Wars" in a week, interspersed with a palate cleanser of "Hoarders" or "Shipping Wars" here and there has made me want to (and actually engage in the work of) cleaning out my attic and basement. And vowing that I'll never have this much stuff again. Because I don't want to get the point in my life where I ever need a storage unit for my extra stuff.
"Storage Wars" will teach you about your own relationship to your things, but I'd be remiss in not mentioning the absolutely terrific characters who make the show genuinely fun and entertaining. It's as if these regular Americans trying to make a buck literally are us, but wiser. They can go through a storage unit in an hour and pull out the one valuable, collectible, or otherwise useful thing. They know what can be reused and re-sold and what just can't, which makes them, in their own way, geniuses. A bickering couple who encapsulate the highs (and mostly lows) of being a married couple with children in the U.S. today, a bored millionaire with the heart of a clown, a sweet but none-too-bright father and son team, a lonely single professional used-stuff guy. They are like us — just trying to get by.