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TV Series Review

A baseball glove signed by Babe Ruth. An Olympic torch. An old Russian fighter jet. They're all in a day's work for the Harrisons of Las Vegas' World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.

The shop, locale for History Channel's wildly popular reality series Pawn Stars, is a venue where American heritage is bought and sold, hocked for cash and leveraged for ratings. The show does it by catering to the history buff and nosy busybody in all of us: Antiques Roadshow with a Sin City sheen.

Every week it's pretty much the same. The Harrison family ("The Old Man" Richard, his son "The Spotter" Rick and grandson "Big Hoss" Corey), along with Corey's friend Chumlee, quickly get down to brass tacks with customers bringing in a motley assortment of historical knickknacks. The real Gold & Silver Pawn Shop deals in everything from, well, gold and silver to mostly working iPads and Star Wars memorabilia. For the History cameras, though, it's all about the cool, weird and really rare stuff that makes its way through the doors. A heat shield from Apollo 11. A first-edition copy of Walden. An antique desk that's actually a gun. The Harrisons have seen it all and much, much more.

Viewers are given a brief and frequently fascinating history of the item in question before buyer and seller get down to the hardtack business of haggling. And speaking of haggling, thrown in for good measure are a few familial squabbles. Maybe Rick thinks Corey spent too much on a stapler owned by a Kennedy, for instance, or Richard—who looks a little like a big-screen mob boss—starts grumbling about the good old days.

But for the most part, stuff is the star here. And with such a basic premise, it almost seems strange that Pawn Stars could be a runaway hit—the biggest show on cable that's not named Jersey Shore. But, in truth, the program's strangely compelling. I, like most Americans, love stuff, and having a chance to look at and learn about things I'll never, ever own is pretty nice. History is actually being taught here (kind of a rarity on the History Channel these days), but in such a way as not to be recognized as a lesson.

The Harrisons sometimes let loose a mild swear or two per episode ("h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑). They (infrequently) throw back some liquor. But sex and showgirls and any sort of physical violence are nowhere to be seen, officially making this the cleanest entertainment within 50 miles of The Strip.

And that's great. But there's still an undercurrent of sadness here that needs to be set on the counter and examined. I've always thought of pawn shops as places of last resort—where people in desperate need of cash go to sell or pawn their valuables for a pittance. And despite the show's high-gloss sheen, a bit of that residue remains. The Harrisons are clearly shrewd dealers, haggling with folks who may not know how much their stuff is worth … or who do know but still need the cash too much to care. The fact that Pawn Stars is now so popular takes a bit of the sting out of it for me, knowing that many of the folks lugging in their goods know exactly why they're there, perhaps angling as much for screen time as a good deal. But that doesn't erase the grime entirely.

Are those behind-the-curtain quibbles outside of my mandate here? Maybe so. Because if I, like the Harrisons, take Pawn Stars as-is—turning the thing over in my hands and determining what it's worth—I'm compelled to give it a pretty good price. A (usually) clean, entertaining history lesson that makes folks actually go out of their way to watch? Such a deal.


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Episode Reviews

PawnStars: 262012
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