When I think about pawn shops, I imagine them as places where people who are down on their luck go to sell a precious object out of desperation. Or maybe the deals are less a sacrifice and more a shady transaction that involves items of questionable ownership. They’re sad, dark, little spaces where nervous people pass items through small windows to scary men who make them bad deals, right?
OK, so I’ve watched too many bad movies where pawn shops and their owners appear in scenes on the seedy side of town. Apparently, the opposite is true. Pawn shops are sites of historical learning and fine, upstanding places to buy and sell. Who knew? The History Channel did. They had the vision and the clever series title naming skills to see that pawn shops are not only an opportunity for educational reality TV but solid family entertainment as well. The result is “Pawn Stars,” a series now in its third season that follows the deals made at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop outside Las Vegas.
The “stars” of this pawn shop are three generations of the Harrison family. Richard is the grandfather who oversees things and waivers between general old-man grumpiness and more specific “that’s not how they did it in my day” old-man grumpiness. If “Pawn Stars” were a western, he would be cast as the retired sheriff or gruff elder statesman former mayor. Richard’s son is Rick. A nice-but-not-a-pushover deal-maker whose informative side-interviews about the items people bring to sell suggest that he’s either super knowledgable about all parts of American history or good at memorizing the notes that the show’s producers most likely pass along. I like Rick because he looks like an extra from “The Sopranos” but gets excited about battleship schematics from WWII. Rounding out the family is Corey, Rick’s son. Corey is a straightforward broker who usually deals with the popular culture items like film memorabilia. He’s “history-lite” to Rick’s “history 101.” There is also a non-Harrison family member called Chumlee who looks like his nickname sounds. His main function seems to be as “Pawn Stars” comic relief.
I’ve learned things from this series which I suppose is the point of any show on the History Channel. But Rick’s “lessons” on the items he assesses are balanced with experts who are called in to answer the all important question of: “What’s it worth?” which, let’s be honest, is the best part. It’s fun to watch sellers try to keep a poker face when asking to be paid thousands of dollars for something we know (thanks to their side interviews to the camera) they will actually sell for a few hundred.
If pawn shops were ever in need of an image overhaul to anyone but me, this series does a good job of rebranding them. Turns out they aren’t dark or sad spaces of desperation at all but rather pleasant places that can help make ends meet. And if by watching the Harrison family run their business, you learn something about knives used during the civil war or how carpenters stored their tools in 1907, all the better.
Page 2 of 2 - “Pawn Stars” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.