Hard times are always remembered for the art they inspired. In Victorian times, the crushing poverty of fast-growing cities was the backdrop for Charles Dickens’ attempts to force a conscience on his countrymen. Horatio Alger argued that even in the face of boom-and-bust post-Civil War America, an individual could pull himself up by his bootstraps to self-reliance. The Great Depression is perhaps best recalled by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or even Dorothea Lange’s photo Migrant Mother.
This time, however, the recession is being projected into the popular imagination on the upper end of the TV dial, in the land of reality television. In fact, there’s an exploding genre you could file under “other people’s junk.” Maybe it started with Antiques Roadshow, but now it’s morphed into shows like Storage Wars, where bargain hunters bid on abandoned storage units.
Storage Wars is about the thrill of the hunt for a good deal. But hanging heavy in the air are some chilling questions: What happened to the family that lost their Christmas decorations because they couldn’t keep up with payments on the unit? Did they lose the house? Did the combination of illness and no insurance bankrupt them? In Dickens’ hands, that family would be the story; today, one man’s misfortune is another man’s windfall.
But my favorite Recession TV series is Gold Rush Alaska, in which a bunch of down-on-their-luck families from Oregon move to Alaska to prospect for gold as a way out of hard times. The last time people flocked to Alaska to find their fortune was in 1897, and there was a recession on then, too. But rather than attempt the deadly trek over the Chilkoot Pass on the way to Dawson City, Todd Hoffman and his followers drove their rigs just 30 miles outside of Haines.
What’s riveting about Gold Rush Alaska is how unhinged these people are. Todd’s dad, Jack Hoffman, wanders around camp repeating that all they have to do is get to the gold and they’ll all be millionaires. (Duh!) At the campfire one night, one of the wives points out that God would never have brought them so far without giving them the gold — so it’s coming, don’t you worry.
Will hoping and praying be enough to make them rich? You’ll have to keep watching to find out — oh, and a second season has already been announced. If Recession TV tells us anything, it’s that the best way to make it through these lean years, short of striking the mother lode, is to get your own reality TV series.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.