Sunday afternoon. Possible chance of rain. Netflix.
As I hovered my mouse uncertainly between Law and Order: SVU and No Reservations, a new addition caught my eye: Storage Wars. I won’t lie— my interest was piqued based solely off the name. Storage Wars? So was this a reality show about people’s quest to store things? Did they compete over who had the best self-storage unit? Did network executives seriously just come up with yet another thing to clog up our TVs?
When Storage Wars debuted in 2010, our economy was still floundering. The federal budget deficit was growing, and although the “Great Recession” officially ended in September, unemployment remained high and houses continued to foreclose.
Enter Storage Wars, which couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The show follows a ragtag group of professional buyers who bid over and purchase storage units that have been abandoned by tenants who could or would no longer pay their monthly rent. After three months (per law in California, where the original Storage Wars is filmed), self-storage facilities are required to auction off delinquent tenants’ units.
The show has enthralled viewers and gone on to run for three seasons and inspire countless other shows like Spike TV’s Auction Hunters and even Storage Wars: Texas. Storage Wars finds itself one of the frontrunners of “trash TV”— quite literally, a television culture obsessed with other people’s trash. In the past few years, Hoarders, American Pickers, and Pawn Stars are just a few of the many shows that center around, well, stuff.
But what is it about stuff that enthralls us? Most of the things we put in storage units are quittodien and uninteresting to the common eye— after all, it’s just stuff, which happens to be everywhere. Take the things on my desk, for example: A water bottle, my purse, a notebook. It’s simple— anyone walking by would see these things and think, “a normal desk space in a workplace.”
But look closer: My water bottle is green, because green is my favorite color. My purse is worn and the sides are scuffed, because I don’t particularly care for it, it just happens to be convenient. I have a notebook, because sometimes I can’t stand the impatient whiteness of Microsoft Word.
These little things – everyday and inconspicuous – actually tell a lot about who I am, what I like, etc. If I lift these things off my desk and put them into a storage unit, they suddenly seem displaced and marooned to the outsider— severed limbs and discombobulated parts. Still, they are all extensions of myself. The “me” is still in there somewhere, but to the outsider, I’m hard to place.
Perhaps that’s the somewhat sad, somewhat enchanting thing about shows like Storage Wars. There’s more inside a storage unit than just a couch or a box of magazines. There are traces of a person, and to see their things picked apart is quite literally like watching someone gut the entrails. Every time Dave Hester says, “Yuuuup,” for example, is another moment when someone’s humanness is reduced to what can be commodified, repackaged and resold. It’s a sick process, but one we can’t help being fascinated with. After all, we are a culture obsessed with other people’s business.
This explains what interests us about Storage Wars— there’s a bittersweet sympathy when we see someone’s things for the first time, when we imagine for the briefest of seconds who this person was, why these certain things are in storage, what the story was. What keeps us entertained and watching, however, is when all of this disappears. Once bidding begins, any deep nostalgia for objects and pasts is lost and replaced by a livid excitement to see who ultimately wins the unit.
Despite our initial sympathy for the delinquent owners, we cannot help but get as enthusiastic as the show’s characters. TV writer Carina Chocano attributes the appeal to the idea that “something – anything – of value lurks beneath the surface, a surface that looks to everybody else like a giant pile of junk.” Perhaps after a few episodes, we feel that we too can appraise the value of a chair or cabinet. Storage Wars gives the impression that anyone can make it.
When asked about the phenomenal response to the show, Storage Wars’ executive producer Elaine Bryant said, “I think it’s the psychology behind it… they lure you in to feel with them.”
She’s right. In the first episode of Storage Wars, for example, Dave Hester is convinced that one of the storage units he wins contains a Hammond B3 organ, valued at $7,000. Dave keeps saying over and over again, “I hope that’s a Hammond B3 in there,” and we can’t help but hope along with him. When the end of the episode reveals that the organ was not a Hammond after all, it’s hard to say who’s more disappointed— Hester or us.
Image courtesy of aetv.com