The 2018 Emmy nominees for Outstanding Structured Reality Show include ABC’s four-time winner Shark Tank, HGTV’s home-makeover behemoth Fixer Upper, Paramount Network’s made-to-go-viral Lip Sync Battle, Netflix’s much-beloved Queer Eye reboot, and TLC’s celebrity-ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? The last nominee in the category is the longtime PBS/WGBH appraisal series Antiques Roadshow, and this is its 14th consecutive nomination. When you combine the current Structured Reality category with the earlier Outstanding Reality Program award, it has more nominations for best reality show than any other series. But Antiques Roadshow has never won an Emmy.
Antiques Roadshow is not cool. It is not trendy. Clips from Antiques Roadshow do not go viral. With vanishingly few exceptions, the celebrities of Antiques Roadshow do not break out into a broader cultural awareness. It is a public-TV stalwart that just finished filming its 23rd season, and despite small format changes here and there since its 1997 premiere (inspired by an even longer-running British series of the same name), the core of the show has remained essentially the same.
An object sits on a table, carefully propped up for display and often set against a backdrop of midnight-blue cloth. It might be a painting, a tea set, or a doll, or it could be some strange, unnamable old thing with no obvious utility or beauty. On one side of the table is an antiques appraiser (in Roadshow parlance, the “expert”), and on the other side of the table, the object’s owner (the “guest”). The expert asks the guest questions. Where did you get it? When? How much did you pay for it? Are there any family stories about it? Do you know anything about it at all? The expert listens, thoughtfully, while the guest lays out what little they know, the family anecdotes and years-long mysteries of the object. Maybe it’s an egg warmer? At home they just call it “the egg warmer.”
And then, the magic. “Let’s take it apart a little bit,” the expert says, carefully opening a painted ceramic container with three round, cupped openings on the top. “It’s not an egg warmer. It’s what we call a bough pot,” he explains, before laying out a lengthy 18th-century history of English pearlware ceramic boxes made to grow and display bulb plants. (“Like tulips or hyacinth,” the expert adds.) This bough pot dates to about 1810, and it’s very unusual to see one “this appealing to the eye.” Then, the money shot: The expert, in this case an appraiser for New York’s Heritage Auctions named Nicholas Dawes, lays out what he thinks the guest could get for this object if he wanted to sell it. Maybe $1,000? Maybe $1,500? If the guest has a matching pair, the set could go for more than twice that much. “Good!” the guest replies, happily.
A dozen times or more, for each hour-long run of an Antiques Roadshow episode, that appraisal process repeats: The display of the object, the guest’s knowledge of the object, the expert’s unbelievably meticulous explanation of its likely history, and the reveal of a probable price. Astonishingly and without fail, it is mesmerizing — a regular cycle of mystery and revelation, the assured delight of giving an object a name, of identifying a lost creator, of connecting knowledge with an unknown.
Antiques Roadshow’s hypnotic effect is not an accident. It is the painstaking design of showrunner Marsha Bemko, who’s carefully, subtly tweaked the format and rhythm of the show throughout the 19 years she’s worked on it. An example of Bemko’s adjustments: Antiques Roadshow films episodes in many cities around the country, and Roadshow used to include a field report segment that ran in the middle of the episode. The show’s host Mark Walberg (no, not that one) would visit a local historical location and talk about it with one of the experts. But that field report is gone now. “We learned from our ratings, that’s when you like to go to the bathroom,” Bemko told Vulture. “I don’t want to make TV for people to go to the bathroom.”
What viewers want from Antiques Roadshow is more appraisals, so Bemko has figured out how to provide them. They’ve added a “feedback booth” that plays over the end credits, where guests talk about their experience at the taping. A sample feedback booth features an elderly man standing next to someone dressed in a Planters Mr. Peanut costume and flatly delivering the line, “I told my wife we’re going to Antiques Roadshow … and she went nuts.” There’s also man wearing a massive black coffin like a backpack, who says, “I’ve got a coffin on my back!”
They’ve also added several shorter segments that display brief, expert assessments of objects that don’t warrant a full center-stage disquisition. In those “snapshot” segments, you can catch a glimmer of slyness in Roadshow’s editing. An expert tells a woman that her enamelware tray is “really quite special.” “But not special enough to be on TV?” the guest retorts. A young girl offers what she thinks may be a real scrimshaw found in a bag of rocks; the expert quickly shows her how to recognize it as a fake, and then pauses before giving a valuation to ask how many rocks were in the bag.
Over its soon-to-be 23 seasons, the most significant change in Antiques Roadshow has been in its audience and its guests, who used to show up at a Roadshow event with absolutely no idea what they were holding. In the age of the internet, guests now tend to arrive with reams of paper demonstrating all the research they’ve done. You’d think this would make the show less necessary now — why go on Antiques Roadshow when you can look it all up yourself? — but Bemko passionately believes in the irreplaceability of expert knowledge. “What our experts offer that they’ve made look easy, is decades and decades of experience,” she said. “What is so impressive, and I think what people intuit by watching the show, is it’s not easy to know what they know.” At a time when the biggest resource on the internet is false information, Antiques Roadshow offers the truth. Yes, it is a Fabergé. No, it is not a Tiffany lamp.
The show’s producers are ruthless in their fact-checking, too. They call artists’ estates to verify whether a work has ever been seen before, they bring in multiple experts to validate the likely provenance of an object, and if anything is matter of opinion, Bemko insists that it be noted that way in the final valuation. The level of fact-checking is especially impressive because none of the show’s experts are paid. For almost everyone who appears on camera, Antiques Roadshow operates on an exposure economy, and some appraisers make their careers by becoming Roadshow stars. But all 160 members of the show’s active expert pool donate their time, regardless of whether their role is an on-camera close-reading of an ancient teapot or a phone call to verify an Edward Hopper etching. Bemko says the show would be impossible to make otherwise: “If we [paid them], I wouldn’t be talking to you because we’d have to add so much to the budget. I don’t know how we’d get all that money!”
For a show ostensibly about money, where the big moment is always the financial valuation at the end of an appraisal, the money almost always ends up feeling secondary. “Oh!” a guest will inevitably gasp at the reveal of a five- or six-figure valuation. “You’re kidding!” Nearly every time, though, the follow-up is: “But I could never sell this, and it will stay in our family.” The guests come to the Roadshow looking for information or validation. They want to know that what they own has value, and the shadowy, unseen foundation for Antiques Roadshow is that there is a market for rare, unusual, especially lovely things. Money could change hands; fortunes could be made. But this never happens on the show. The economy of Antiques Roadshow is information: It’s what gives Bemko a good story to tell, it’s what lets an appraiser make a valuation, and it’s what the guests come to find.
It’s what the viewers come for, too. When we watch, say, a Law & Order marathon, what we’re seeing is an absence of knowledge and a need to restore the status quo. Who did it? How will the cops bring the criminals to justice? It’s a rhythm that repeats over and over with each episode, an absence and an answer. An episode of Antiques Roadshow is essentially the same: We get a sequence of questions, a slow parade of objects without names, and every time, Antiques Roadshow provides an answer. It has all the soothing, rhythmic comfort of a police procedural, but rather than blood and violence, Antiques Roadshow offers us objects that lost their names, paintings and toy cars and wooden tables and necklaces that became unmoored from their context. Then Antiques Roadshow gives us their names, and tells us about them. It is a procedural about finding lost stories.
One of Bemko’s favorite moments from the show is from 2007, in an episode filmed in Orlando. Someone brought in photos of President John F. Kennedy, and a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson in the moment he was sworn in after Kennedy’s assassination. The guest had them because he took the photos himself; he was former White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, and he’d come on Antiques Roadshow for a valuation of the items and also to reassert his ownership of them. That LBJ photo is iconic, but Stoughton is rarely credited with taking it. It’s a great segment — and one of Stoughton’s very few known interviews — and it matters because it puts his name back in the story of those images. But my favorite Antiques Roadshow moments are the smaller, stranger, more surprising objects. A perfect-condition miniature salesman replica of an icebox. The “holy grail” of Hot Wheels cars. Ceramics that were partially turned into glass by the Hiroshima bombing. A hardtack biscuit from the Titanic. A book of early-20th-century original mugshot photos. They’re unexpected remnants. They’re survivors.
It may never be Antiques Roadshow’s year to win an Emmy. The show will never be the cool, politically pointed, buzzy new thing. Voting for it will never feel like making a statement. It will never feel of-the-moment. It will always feel like some old, half-forgotten, ubiquitous entry in a crowded reality-show category. A show that’s been banging around the TV attic for years. A show your grandparents had. A show that, come to think of it, might be worth reconsidering just out of curiosity. A show that maybe does have some worth. A show that might actually be pretty rare. A show that might even be a treasure, if you look closely.