Wednesday, April 17, 2013

HARDCORE PAWN Four: Happy 100th, Les! (Episodes, That Is!)

"In the heart of Detroit's 8 Mile lies the city's biggest and baddest pawn shop...."

I am Michiganian by birth, Detroiter by heart. I spent more than 30 years in the Automotive Capital of Earth, became a man and a professional there, so shows that are set in Detroit or attempt to capture a slice of life in the Motor City are especially dear to me.

Hardcore Pawn is an amazingly successful, largely unsung Detroit TV gem. Shot inside the now-iconic American Jewelry and Loan on Eight Mile Road, Hardcore Pawn is truTV's most consistently successful series: its season seven premiere last March 26 drew the cable channel's largest audience ever in the coveted demo of adults 18-49. It's basic cable's No. 1 unscripted program in its 9 p.m. (EST) Tuesday time slot, spawned a spinoff series in Hardcore Pawn: Chicago and, if it weren't for the unbelievably whacked-out string of belligerent, ignorant, foulmouthed customers it spotlights, would be a continuing source of pride for Detroiters.

Moreover, I have grown to know series stars Les and Seth Gold and Ashley Gold Broad personally. I've written several stories on the family-owned business, including this feature for HOUR Detroit magazine. I've even patronized the place: the wristwatch I wear every day was purchased at American Jewelry and Loan. So for its lucky seventh season, I selected Hardcore Pawn as a series to review here on a weekly basis. Here's a recap of Episode Four, the show's landmark 100th episode, aired April 16:

When I made reference to a glowingly positive feature on Hardcore Pawn last week in Variety magazine in connection with the series' milestone 100th episode, I was fascinated – but by no means surprised – by the tone of the messages I received in return.

The responses from folks who live in Detroit or have Motor City ties were stingingly consistent. They said, in effect, "I hate that flipping show, because it always portrays our city in such a negative manner."

I'd be the first one to agree that Hardcore Pawn may not be the Convention & Visitors Bureau's first choice for a promo reel extolling the wonders of Detroit. But I've enjoyed the series from its one-shot, do-or-die pilot telecast in 2009 to its official debut in August 2010 right up through Tuesday's historic episode, and you'd hard-pressed to find a bigger Detroit zealot than I am.

While I don't want to come off sounding like an HP apologist  – especially because the show certainly doesn't need one – I invite all naysayers to keep a few facts in mind:

• More than 3 million people, a pretty massive number for basic cable, routinely tune in to watch Hardcore Pawn every Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST, so there are viewers who find the program worthwhile.

• Television is one of America's purest forms of democracy. If Americans had cast their vote against the show simply by not watching it (you know, like they do with NBC series), it wouldn't have survived the first season.

• Many viewers have told me they enjoy Hardcore Pawn primarily not because of its stream of profanity, customer hijinks or bum's-rush store ejections, but because it presents a real family trying to operate a real business under challenging circumstances. It shows a father and his two offspring who clearly love each other despite all the bickering and disagreements. People relate to the Golds: They may have a dad like Les, or recognize relatives or friends in Ashley and Seth.

• It's a pawn shop: one would reasonably expect some, if not most, of its clientele to be a bit on the crude and irritable side. I mean, in theory nobody really wants to be there, right? Whenever they decide to do a reality show at the Detroit Athletic Club, expect the ambiance to be decidedly different. I think.

• Whether we like to admit it or not, Hardcore Pawn is a slice of Detroit in all its crass and untamed glory. Remembering a time my neighbor on the East Side bolted out of his front door, raced over to stand nose to nose, and threatened to punch or cut me because I had taken his on-street parking space, I'm not certain the show's confrontations are always trumped-up. HP might not be the Detroit reality from Bloomfield Hills or Rochester, but it's the reality in some parts of the region.

• And, believe it or not, Hardcore Pawn is an asset to the visitor's bureau. The show's establishing shots frequently show views of a glistening riverfront or attractive city landscapes. And I personally have met people who traveled to Detroit from as far away as Florida and Washington state just to see American Jewelry and Loan for themselves and maybe try to sell an item. It's become a tourist attraction! It's good for the local economy!

All that being said, the 100th episode – arriving after the hype of promo commercials that promised "100 times more (fill in the blank)," was a disappointment. The theme centered around an employee who devised his own side hustle to sell customers front-of-the-line privileges for a $3 tip at the door – causing havoc inside the store – and Ashley employing her detective skills to identify the culprit after Les and Seth walked away from the problem. But the concept seemed disjointed and slowly paced; the line-cutting didn't seem to spark the kind of wild-eyed outrage one might expect knowing American's typical customer base.

The family conflict, on the heels of the store's head of security being fired for theft and the resulting, who-can-we-trust employee searches that triggered a mass walkout in earlier episodes, was whether to fire Anton, the enterprising worker who dreamed up the tip-jar scam. In the end, compassion came from a most unexpected source.

The highlight of the half-hour was the appearance of an immaculately restored, 1947 replica of a green Vernor's ginger ale delivery truck that Les should have bought at any price (Vernor's is a symbol of Detroit, and the truck was sweet). But the laugh-out-loud moment occurred when a customer tried to sell his "I-Grow Laser Hair Growth System" – essentially, a heat lamp inside a goofy-looking silver helmet with suction cups and headphones – and Bobby, American Jewelry and Loan's follically-challenged employee, volunteered to try it on.

The device caused the top of Bobby's round dome to glow neon red.

"You look like a Christmas tree," Les observed.

"I look like a (bleep)," Bobby replied.

The kicker: the seller himself was bald. "Well, I didn't use the thing," he maintained. "I'm very happy being bald."

Now the impressive milestone has passed, the 100th episode is over and out. (Which means, by the way, that we may see Hardcore Pawn in reruns for the rest of our natural lives.) Mazel tov. Let's hope for a rebound on Episode 101.

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With no outrageous customer ejections in this episode (another glaring absence), the Top 5 American Jewelry and Loan store tossouts from last week remain unchanged. They are:

5. Josh, the Dallas doofus from Episode Three who demanded $500 for his worthless watch.

4. Patrick, the demented drum dealer from Up North, also in Episode Three, who declared, "Everybody knows Ashley from American Jewelry and Loan is a bitch!" Security chief Byron showed Patrick the door so quickly, Ashley had to chase him down in the parking lot to return his "antique" African drum.

3. The sentimental fool from Episode One who tried to pawn one of his late grandmother's rings in the same breath he mourns her recent death. His verbal and physical assault on Ashley sparked Les's rage, because NOBODY insults his daughter in his store. It also brought Ashley to tears.

2. "DogMan," the tall computer genius with anger management issues in Episode Two who orders Les to retrieve the hard drive from his pawned PC and calls everybody "Dog." "Who let the dog out?" asked Les, who unleashed his first "MF" of the season. "Byron let the dog out!"

And, still reigning at No. 1:

The boy genius from Episode One who came in looking to buy a portable generator and asked, "It doesn't run on electricity, does it?" When he demanded to bring the generator to his home to test it out and is denied, he got the Byron Bounce and ended up humping one of the tall front-door pylons on his way to the parking lot!

That fool had issues.

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