These days, if you Google “Storage Wars,” likely two things will come up. First, is the fact that yet another version of the ever-popular A&E reality show is set to launch in January – Storage Wars: New York – and, second, that one of the original cast members, David Hester, recently claimed in a lawsuit that “nearly every aspect of the show is faked.” The latter has somewhat overshadowed the former in terms of publicity, and yet, based on the continued popularity of the series, there’s little doubt Storage Wars: New York will be a success, because if there’s anything we know about ourselves these days, it’s that nobody cares if reality television is exactly the opposite of what it says it is.
To explain: Storage Wars is an immensely successful program that shows, half an hour at a time, a group of Californians who spend their time bidding on repossessed storage lockers in the hopes of finding something inside that will make them a large profit. Generally, at least one of the five main characters is successful – sometimes wildly – but often, some go home having lost cash on their purchases. It seems real enough. But in his recent lawsuit, Hester claims the show’s producers sometimes salt lockers with items that weren’t originally there (perhaps uncovered in another locker) to make the show more interesting. Hester claims he complained about the practice and was fired from the program. Thus, his litigation.
The idea that the show might not be an accurate representation of what really goes on at all these storage auctions likely came as little surprise to most people – or, at least, most people who have any prior knowledge of reality TV. It’s not the first time a show has been accused (or revealed) as having either scripted portions of the program for more drama, or misrepresented elements to put together a cohesive (and dramatic) narrative. And, should it go on, Storage Wars would not be the first time a show has continued, basically unchanged, after that fact has come to light.
The bottom line is: nobody cares. Reality TV is simply entertaining, (and surely more so precisely if the Storage War lockers are peppered with planted treasures). It’s just a TV show, after all, and to a point, we understand that TV is always going to be a constructed production. On a slightly deeper level, Storage Wars offers us a particular type of addictive escapism. As others have noted, it’s part of a trend of what’s being loosely called “recession TV” – that is, programs that play to the fact we’re all suffering a bit more economically these days, and offer us a projection of that cultural reality.
Storage Wars offers a nod to both sides of the recession: every show is built on the premise that somewhere, someone has fallen on hard enough times that they can no longer make the payments to continue storing their possessions. The series also projects an image of what could probably be considered to be the success of the American Dream. That is, everyone can make it, somehow, in the land of opportunity, where only the strong survive. Making money off other people’s failures is the darker side of that collective fantasy, but it’s accepted all the same.
Reality TV plays on our cultural acceptance of the hyperreal. It is the presentation of a better reality than actual reality. At some level, thanks to years of being exposed to other examples of it, we’re accustomed to accepting as legitimate entertainment this conjured abstraction of what we know to be real. In theory, we should be annoyed that reality shows actually don’t show us what’s really going on, but we’re OK with it all because they show us something altogether entirely different. And, as it turns out, we like that better.
I’ll direct your attention to the simplest explanation of hyperreality I could find. It’s on Wikipedia, and right in the core of the definition, it offers a hint as to why Storage Wars and its ilk are so amazingly successful, despite being (allegedly) a sham. The Wikipedia entry notes Umberto Eco’s Travels In Hyperreality, where he describes Disneyland as giving its guests “more reality than nature can.” It’s an interesting idea, on which Eco expands in his book.
“If in the wax museums wax is not flesh, in Disneyland, when rocks are involved, they are rock, and water is water. … When there is a fake – hippopotamus, dinosaur, sea serpent – it is not so much because it wouldn’t be possible to have the real equivalent but because the public is meant to admire the perfection of the fake and its obedience to the program,” Eco writes. “In this sense Disneyland not only produces illusion, but – in confessing it – stimulates the desire for it.”
This is exactly what Storage Wars – and for that matter, all other reality TV – gives us, too. The fabricated is not just expected but admired. We don’t care that it’s fake because what’s fake is now more real than what is actually real. Hester might assume people will be outraged or angry that their favourite reality show could be staged and, logically, he should be right. But then he would have failed to understand why people watched in the first place.
Disneyland shows us that faked nature “corresponds much more to our daydream demands,” Eco says. Perhaps so would planted treasures in repossessed storage lockers.