I can count the number of reality shows that I have enjoyed, as a viewer, on one hand — "Project Runway," "The Amazing Race," "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," the first three episodes of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" (before the whole Danielle and table-throwing mess), the most recent episodes of "American Idol." But none of them has made the personal DVR cut, the recorded lineup I watch for my own pleasure.
And then came "Storage Wars."
Following the adventures of four professional buyers as they bid on the contents of repossessed storage lockers, "Storage Wars" is a modern-day treasure hunt. In each half-hour episode, the group attends auctions at which they bid on dusty boxes, grimy bins and the mysterious silhouettes created by old bedspreads and plastic tarps. After the storage locker is opened, the auction participants have only five minutes to scan its contents; they are not allowed to enter, rummage around or lift lids. Five minutes of trying to make sense of upended chairs, old kitchen appliances, cardboard boxes and glimmers of possibilities.
Think "Raise the Titanic" meets "Hoarders" on the way to "Antiques Roadshow"; you simply cannot look away. What is that bit of glass glinting in the darkness? What conclusions can be drawn by an open box filled with expensive but worn tennis shoes or by a visible matchbook collection? Does the presence of a set of speakers speak of a possible music hoard? Why on earth would a person fill an entire locker with piles of newspapers?
Because they announced the death of Elvis Presley and so were worth about $5 apiece, netting the buyer a $30,000 profit, that's why.
"Storage Wars" has it all — the prurient fascination with other people's possessions, the tension of a game show and a cast of characters who are diverse and refreshingly real.
The beefy and tattooed Darrell Sheets has been hooked on storage auctions since he found a pair of Picassos almost 20 years ago; he is so perpetually sunburned by hours spent with son Brandon in the sun-blasted storage lots of Southern California searching for a big score that his eyes are ringed with the pale outline of his signature shades.
Canny Dave Hester runs the successful Rags to Riches consignment store; he has the deepest pockets of the group and loves to run up the price on units just for the fun of it. When auctioneer Dan Dotson begins his symphonic patter, Dave is the one to watch.
Young Jarrod Schulz and his wife, Brandi, are the heartstrings of the set. They're barely hanging on with their Now and Then Second Hand Store, and when Jarrod makes a mistake and overbids (as he so often does), it takes a toll on his marriage as well as his business.
Rounding out the group is collector Barry Weiss, a man who could be found only in Los Angeles. With his Palm Springs tan and Robert Evans glasses, he's like the Mike Ovitz of junk, looking for the Next Big Thing, be it a set of collectible flare guns or a pocket spittoon.
The interplay of the group as it moves through the auction process is good, clean fun, as are the cutaways to interviews in which members explain their "strategies." Each episode includes at least one trip to an expert, during which viewers learn about the rareness of a diamond-patterned Spider-Man, the odd trafficking in fake shrunken heads or the importance flare guns played in various wars.
But the draw of the show is the stuff, the weird and wonderful things that people have thrown into storage and forgotten. Collections of coins, action figures, antique cars, bamboo fishing rods and odd purple vases that turn out to be worth thousands of dollars.
It helps that A&E carries it in episodes that are only 30 minutes long — 15, really if you record them and fast-forward through the commercials, intro and bits of repetitive scene introductions. The posturing and competitiveness among the men is refreshingly right-sized — although there are moments of genuine irritation, no one's throwing tables or calling each other hurtful names, or trying to destroy the life of another. They're all just people you might actually know who spend their days sifting through junk in the hopes of finding something of value.
That they almost always do makes "Storage Wars" a strangely uplifting show — hope being one of the many things one can apparently find in an abandoned storage unit.