Pawn Stars: The delights of watching a know-it-all Vegas pawnbroker hold court.

Pawn Stars: The delights of watching a know-it-all Vegas pawnbroker hold court.

Pawn Stars: The delights of watching a know-it-all Vegas pawnbroker hold court.

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June 20 2010 8:44 AM

Pawn Stars

Getting lectured on shortwave radios and coal scrip is surprisingly entertaining.

Pawn Stars.
Corey Harrison, Richard Harrison, and Rick Harrison

The Gold and Silver Pawn Shop sits at 713 Las Vegas Blvd. S., on the unglamorous side—the anti-glamorous side—of Sahara Avenue, past the casinos, among the wedding chapels. Its parking lot bakes in the unadulterated desert sun, without any neon fooling with the mineral tint of the hard light. If you are only now getting word of Pawn Stars (History Channel, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET)—the hit reality show set at the Gold and Silver, now back for a third season—then you need to know first that the show has nothing in it of the Strip. The segments—the scenes of appraising collector's items and haggling gently over them—never feature any clattering jackpot bells and whistles. There isn't any chorus line of Antiques Roadshow girls, either.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

If those walls could talk, what would they say? Wait—strike the question—the walls do talk, and they say things like, "checks cashed" and "we never close." When seen in close proximity to a decadent vacationland, such signs tend to point toward tragic farce. However, the second thing to know about Pawn Stars is that it's not about the down and out—never mind the shot in the opening credits where star pawnbroker Rick Harrison scowlingly pulls a case of a chunky championship rings out of a safe. Often, after determining the value of a given item, Rick will ask his customer, "Do you want to pawn it or sell it?," but in the context of the show, it's a rhetorical question. Though the Gold and Silver reportedly makes most of its money in pawns, not straight sales, the show tilts the other way. As Rick recently told the New York Times: "People who pawn don't want to be on TV." This puts them in the good company of witness-protection recipients, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and no other recognized groups, while leaving the rest of us to enjoy scenes of everyday nondesperate people trying to sort out how little money they are willing to accept for inherited memorabilia and the like. What is the right price? The price is right, right? Is this price right or what?

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Rick: hard brow, bald head. His eyes do this butchy-cute puppy-dog thing when he's trying to look sympathetic while countering a counteroffer, and they beam with a geek's intensity when he's transmitting data about vintage knickknacks and random Americana. The appearance of a bar of gold is an occasion for a sidebar about the gold standard. Coal scrip coins prompt a controlled flare-up about wage slavery. Happily, there are only the merest hints of Comic Book Guy in Rick's deportment. He's not a snob, and he has a practiced easy manner—the next thing after salesmanship, buysmanship. Rick's a little bit of a know-it-all, but one of the things he knows is when in the course of an appraisal to call in a friend who knows more than he does about scrimshaw or B-29 navigational systems. The friends fulfill dramatic roles similar to those of forensics specialists on cop shows, and they invariably show up on set wearing some kind of antique facial hair, as if they'd dropped into the shop on the way back from panning for gold or fighting the Mexican-American War.

Before any one of these bearded experts exits the shop to get back on the wagon trail, or whatever, he shares handshakes with the other members of the Gold and Silver team. Foremost among these is Rick's dad, who is identified onscreen as "The Old Man" and who dresses like some kind of mortician in a Johnny Cash song. It's hard to tell if The Old Man is merely gruff or also doddering, but in any case he emits low rumbles of semicomic skepticism at a steady rate.

Then there's Rick's son, Corey, a physically imposing figure nicknamed Big Hoss. Pawn Shop's official Web site paints a curious picture of father-son psychodynamics. If I understand a dangling modifier correctly, then Big Hoss believes himself to be "oftentimes treated like a slave…. Without a real stake in the business, Corey is hoping that all of his hard work pays off." It must be especially straining on filial relations that Rick supposedly regards yet another employee, Corey's boyhood friend Austin, as a second son. Austin is known as Chumlee or Chum. Originally, I thought he had chosen this as his nickname because "Obese Hoss" was already taken, but his online bio set me straight: "Friends in elementary school took the name from cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo's sidekick, a walrus." Chumlee—who, in the most generous assessment, assiduously cultivates the air of a total burnout—is a big tub of goo goo g'joob. He was in top form the other night when summoning a hyperchipper chuckle in response to an old Woody Woodpecker toy.

The laugh most frequently heard wheezing across Pawn Stars is the dry, hoarse, genial one Rick uses to ingratiate and to cajole and to congratulate himself on his own learning and savvy. Don't get Rick started on short-wave radios. Really, don't. When a guy brought in a vintage Zenith, the graphics department did a fine a job overloading viewers' processing centers all by itself—an excess of info-tastic pop-up boxes about manufacturing dates and frequency modulation. Still, Rick was there to make interesting small talk about the days when America produced 90 percent of the world's electronics, and that small talk was essential to his show of trying to make a deal. Then some store-bought suspense music pumped on the soundtrack, and a few fake pauses played out, and … then … a paramount data point appeared in red: $80. That is how much cash that radio will get you right now. Shake on it. Nice doing business with you. Chum'll do up the paperwork.

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