Adventures in Old Age

A candid look at aging, old age, and eldercare.

The New Reality Of Reality TV

Pawnstars is the down-market side of the American dream.


“Oh my god!” is the response you usually hear on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow when the newly orphaned woman or man of a certain age is told that that jug in which they keep the umbrellas is a Ming vase. 

“I’ll never sell it!” 

“But for insurance purposes, I’d put it at $60,000,” says the on air appraiser. 

“Oh my god!” 

On the Roadshow, all the appraisers are dressed for corporate work. Men and women in suits. And the two most noticeable, identical twins, the Keno twins, are graduates of the higher realms of academia, Williams College. 

An estimated 14 million people watch this show on PBS every week. 

But times change, and reality TV is reflecting reality. 

On Pawn Stars, hugely popular on History (less emphasis now on Hitler and more on “history happening everyday” shows like Pawnstars, Ice Road Truckers, and Axe Men) three chunky dudes (dudes don’t go to Williams), three generations of Harrisons and their even chunkier sidekick, Chumlee, are open for business and ready to talk turkey. 

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The higher realms of academia seem to be not Williams, not even the University of Las Vegas--where the shop is located--but the U.S. Navy, of which the Old Man--Grandpa--is a veteran. 

The prevailing ethos in the pawnshop is not “OMG!” but “How much can I get for this?” 

This is the down market side of the Antiques Roadshow’s American dream. 

People walk into the show with a variety of ancient firearms, first issues of Playboy Magazine (imagine that on the Roadshow), and life-size Power Ranger actions

figures. They’re hoping to cash in and hit it big at the casinos, or, more modestly, take the kids on vacation. 

Occasionally, a customer becomes upset when told his heirloom is a fake, and the security guard--even beefier than the Harrisons--sidles over. 

No cable network is immune from the reality of this economy. Over on HGTV, its most popular show, House Hunters, is a door number one, door number two, door number thee type of set-up with home buyers viewing three abodes and picking one. “Bing Bong” goes the bell as you see the happy buyer, some months later, in the winning house. 

Although they still feature House Hunters International, which looks at villas in Tuscany or pied-à-terres in Paris, as a long-time fan I’ve noticed some of the prices coming down. I recently saw a young man in the Detroit market with a price tag between $50,000 and $100,000. 

His live-in girlfriend could only cringe as floors creaked and doors fell off, but her boyfriend said, “The more of a fixer-upper, the better.” 

During the commercials--PBS don’t need no stinkin’ commercials except for interminable pledge weeks with execrable investment advisors, Viennese waltzes, and Deepak Chopra wannabees--in this economy, we see pitches for people to empty drawers and bring in their “scrap gold” for cold, hard cash. And truth be told, many of those Antiques Roadshow treasures that they swore they never would sell, wind up at auction. A quarter-million Apache blanket thrown over the couch is fine and good, but it can’t beat money in the bank. 

In this economy, if I were a producer, I’d pitch Homeless House Hunters in which people whose domiciles are under bridges or inside refrigerator boxes are given a shot at a roof over their heads. The problem I’d see with such a show is that they will walk into the first house and say, “Walls, roof, a kitchen, a john, I’ll take it!” 

For now,  I’ll have to settle for HGTV’s For Rent. It operates in a universe parallel to House Hunter, one in which the protagonists cannot aspire to the 20th Century American Dream of home ownership, but are willing to settle for a landlord. 

And when I want to get out the hankies, I watch Property Intervention in which people who are underwater are looking for someone to throw them a life preserver. Who knew, I couldn’t afford this $500,000 MacMansion on a Wal-Mart salary? 

I wonder if it’s time to bring back Queen for a Day, in which three women daily pleaded for an iron-lung for a son, a grave marker for mom, or a vacation from 12-children. At the end of the show, an applause meter would award the most pathetic as she would don a tiara with tears to the acclaim of all. As a child watching this in the 1950s, bless my liberal heart, I’d wonder about what happened to the iron-lung kid whose mom didn’t win. 

The economic gurus tell me they have saved us from a second Great Depression settling for only the Great Recession. But I can still have my perverse dream of the Soup Kitchen Show on the  Food Channel.

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Click here to read the first chapter of my book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009). It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."

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Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Connecticut who works in eldercare facilities and the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare.

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