2014 columns, Pop Culture

Eccentric junk collectors held high on American Pickers

by Julia Tulloh , April 16, 20142 Comments

American Pickers

The History Channel’s American Pickers, currently in its sixth season, is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable reality series on TV. It’s not a competition show, it doesn’t exist to objectify people and it isn’t particularly dramatic. So what’s the appeal?

American Pickers follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they ‘pick’ their way through privately owned collections of stuff (any kind of stuff). The participants don’t collect antiques in the same way as the guests of Antiques Roadshow or Australia’s Collectors might: rather, they are mostly old guys who’ve been accumulating gas station paraphernalia, car and motorcycle parts, mechanical toys, jukeboxes, postcards, old uniforms, war memorabilia and other ‘Americana’ for decades. To the untrained eye, it all looks like junk, but Mike and Frank will pick through it until they find an old tin robot or a Chevrolet frame that they can purchase at a bargain price and then sell for a profit at their respective antique stores, Antique Archeology and Frank Fritz Finds.

American Pickers feels stereotypically American, without being over the top. My brother recently visited the US for the first time and commented on how familiar it was and how strongly it reminded him of his childhood, even though he’d never been there before. Watching Mike and Frank feels a little like this – the Midwestern homes they visit are so familiar, and seeing a bunch of real people pore over and cherish old ceramic Texaco signage makes me feel like this warm, backwoodsy, nostalgic vision of America could be a reality.

The show is not melodramatic. It doesn’t hook the audience in through dramatic voice-overs or overwrought special effects. It’s at its most compelling when Mike haggles an obscure piece of piping down to thirty bucks, and then resells it in his store for fifty.

Unlike many other reality TV shows, American Pickers doesn’t exploit the vulnerable in order to gain an audience. Shows like Supernanny, Embarrassing Bodies and Hoarding: Buried Alive purport to help participants work through serious life issues, but the real reason they succeed is because we as viewers are simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by other people’s problems.

Rather than making a spectacle of people as other shows would, American Pickers validates people who might otherwise be seen as a little strange. The show mostly focuses on dudes, with the exception of the awesome Danielle Colby, who runs Mike’s shop, organises valuations and sales, and is also a mother, burlesque dancer, fashion designer and ex-roller derby competitor. Even so, the men whose possessions are picked over – obsessive junk collectors who are often in late middle age or elderly – belong to a demographic typically only portrayed on television as peripheral characters or as comic relief.

One collector, Ron (jokingly referred to as the ‘mole man’), had built a series of tunnels reinforced with cinderblocks beneath his home to house his collection of toy trucks, used car parts, and old pictures. The tunnel entrance looked like an exploded mine shaft, and Ron spent the entire episode deep inside a maroon sweater with the hood tightened around his face like an arctic sleeping bag. In another episode, the collector’s shed had been blacked out and festooned with all manner of stringed and rotating lights, illuminating his rare toy collection like a carnival.

That’s why American Pickers is so appealing: its subjects are portrayed humorously, but they are also always real people with precious objects and valuable knowledge to offer.

Julia Tulloh is a writer in Melbourne and is working on a PhD about Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. She tweets at @jtul and blogs at

ACO logo

  • Melissa Sands

    Great article!

  • john396

    With all the fake reality shows on TV, its nice to find a REAL one….

9004993292_3d8f026110_z (1)

Samantha Forge

Apples and Oranges: The false economy of the parallel importation debate

The government’s recent decision to support the removal of parallel importation restrictions (PIR) on books shows that it is determined to treat Australian books like oranges. This stance makes it clear that the government sees no particular cultural value in the works of Australian authors, and in the production of Australian literature. Rather, it values above all else the unit price of a book, regardless of its origin. Read more »


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »