some more serious stuff ’, and then we navigated backwards and forwards.’’ Things that didn’t make the cut included pet rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids. Those that did included rap and hip-hop, Pac-Man — that lovable snapping mouth chomping with want — and the birth of the modern Super Bowl ads, with Apple’s ‘‘ 1984’’ spot directed by Tony Scott.
There’s also the story of the way Fonda popularised aerobics and gyms with her ‘‘ feel good, look good’’ revolution. The world’s continuing fitness craze started because Fonda broke her ankle while filming a movie. Needing to find a less intensive way to stay fit, the actress discovered the gym class. The resulting workout would become the wildly popular VHS tape series, though at the time the video machine hardly existed — most available tapes were hardcore porno. But, through Fonda, looking good became a political ideology. As she points out dryly, it was still a time women weren’t allowed to sweat.
Nostalgia surrounds us in this age of retrieving, rebooting, recycling, rehashing and, when it comes to new shows, reimagining old ones. Digital technology has made recent history not only accessible but practically inescapable, and Root and her filmmakers do TV history in this substantial series as well as anyone, laced with wit and irony. And maybe she’s right here — perhaps the 80s is the decade we thought we knew. As William Faulkner said: ‘‘ The past is never dead; it’s not even past.’’ IF The 80s hits you between the eyes with its mega-doco aesthetic, Aussie Pickers, another factual documentary series, just sneaks up on you, though its two main characters, Lucas Callaghan and Adam McDonald, are hardly retiring types. It started last week and seems destined for a long run on Foxtel’s A&E channel. Based on the successful US show American Pickers, the series is part of reality TV’s new wave, the answer to all those series such as Hoarders and Clean House in which clutter is the enemy and hoarding a sign of an untreated pathology.
(Season five of American Pickers can be found on Fridays at 7.30pm on A&E, a channel that loves these kinds of shows.)
This new class of program includes Storage Wars, in which rather colourful buyers bid for abandoned storage lockers, often after only minimal inspection, and Scrappers, which follows scrap metal collectors in Brooklyn. Then there’s Pawn Stars, which chronicles the daily activities at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. And the myriad copycats spawned in their wake.
While they are hardly dissected for their intellectual significance, they exemplify that gap between what TV lovers talk about so vociferously — the Mad Men-Breaking Bad syndrome — and what most other people are watching. You probably won’t start a dinner party conversation chatting about the psychological dimension of A&E’s Duck Dynasty or History’s Swamp People.
American Pickers debuted on January 18, 2010, on US cable station A&E and picked up more than three million viewers. ‘‘ Trash’’ had become cable TV’s unlikely treasure (a line used to promote the local series). But it took a while for the show’s creators, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, to crack the TV big time.
Wolfe pitched for four years, shooting homemade episodes with Fritz using a small video camera. When he showed his pilots to executives at A&E sister channel the History channel, Wolfe says they knew they had a hit. Now the activity called ‘‘ picking’’ has turned Wolfe and Fritz, a couple of middle-aged bluecollar antiques collectors from Iowa, into unlikely celebrities.
The show follows them as they travel primarily around mid-western America in a panel van, buying antiques and collectables, picking bargains from the dross. And cherrypick they do, buying anything they think they can make a buck on. ‘‘ What people see as junk, we see as dollar signs’’ is their oft-repeated motto, but they also delight in a kind of homespun antique archeology, examining the history of the pieces they buy. ‘‘ We’re telling the history of America, one piece at a time,’’ is their other catchphrase.
The rollicking local version, produced by Shine, follows the original format closely. Callaghan and Lucas, like Wolfe and Fritz, are tattooed, true-blue characters, though both have an extensive, diverse and professional knowledge of collectables. Lucas, one of country’s most prolific pickers, specialises in ‘‘ unique objects from the post-war period’’; and Callaghan’s passion is for industrial antiques (or ‘‘ mantiques’’ as he likes to call them).
Auctioneer Cecily Hardy, hailing from a family of collectors, runs their office and base, tracking down leads and dealing with inquiries for her ‘‘ boys’’.
Callaghan and Lucas go on the road in their white van, not only following up leads Hardy generates but also ‘‘ free-styling’’, stopping at places that look as if they might hold items worth something. They explore people’s homes, garages, sheds and outhouses, anywhere they have stored antiques and collectables. They call on casual collectors, hoarders and occasionally people who have inherited collections of apparent junk.
This week they’re deep in the hills of northern NSW meeting a guy who calls himself Mad Dog, and they approach the assignment with trepidation. Mad Dog turns out to be a friendly character who initially shows them the collection under his house. The pickers are a bit disappointed at coming so far to see so little, then Mad Dog takes them to the back of his property and his shed, a huge structure filled to the brim, and a massive pick is under way. Next stop is Warwick and Gwenda, who have been collecting together since their honeymoon 49 years ago, and have an extensive collection of Australian phone books and beer cans. In the Snowy Mountains, the pickers visit passionate car collector Mick Ambrose, who has car bodies and parts strewn across 10ha outside town.
It’s one of those formats with a potentially large audience that provides instant escape and, more often than not, comic disbelief at the characters the pickers encounter. The series isn’t an open invitation to be critically dissected and anatomised, just a show to watch and kill time.
But despite the obvious diversion provided, it is popular because it’s a cunningly produced and presented expression of the human capacity to categorise objects. So many of us do it and the Pickers shows offer reassurance that while collecting and hoarding objects can be a soothing escape from anxieties, just skirting the problems of addiction in many cases, it’s not necessarily an escape from life itself.
Like the original, the rather jaunty local version of the show is a highly entertaining hybrid of travelogue, treasure hunt and lateral history program, with each collector’s treasure a snapshot that captures the essence of the time in which it was created. And these specialist pickers, self-described ‘‘ modern archeologists", are a link in the chain that drags valuable relics out of dusty obscurity and into our auction rooms, stores, museums and living rooms. The fun lies in the way we enter the stories of these objects in the program’s short, vivid and sometimes highly comical segments. Callaghan and Lucas — they even sound like a vaudeville act — may just be local TV’s latest double act.