The Watcher - Junk in the trunk

Turner South treasure hunts for an original hit

It's a stuffy Friday afternoon at Paris on Ponce, and Dave Bird is wearing an astronaut helmet.

Not a real astronaut helmet, but a Styrofoam relic from a battered '70s child costume. Bird does a brief walking-on-the-moon shtick before passing the helmet to his partner in grime Val Myers, who removes her oversized Sluggo cap and tries to squeeze into the kid-sized disguise.

Bird and Myers' tour of this sprawling antiques market-cum-junk heap lacks any obvious plan or agenda. They drift through the flotsam like kids killing time in grandma's attic — kids who make smart-assed comments about everything they pick up.

As the co-hosts of "Junkin'," a recent arrival on Turner South, they've honed the craft of finding fun with the most oddball castoffs. Each half-hour episode sends the duo — in a vintage El Camino — to a different backwoods Southern town, where they scour flea markets, yard sales and sometimes even private homes in search of the best, um, junk.

"Antiques Roadshow," it's not. Bird and Myers don't claim to be professional appraisers, and really aren't worried about an item's market value.

"The value of something is what you say it is," says Bird, who created the show. "If you say it's worth $25, and somebody pays $25 for it, then that's what it's worth."

To prove this point, Bird and Myers put their flea market finds up for auction on eBay, and end each episode with an update of how much the item sold for. Those 50-cent mud-covered Devo shades just might get $17 (an actual example), while the homemade wooden box goes unsold.

It's a deceptively simple concept, and a wonderfully low-budget one at that, that still delivers a lot of bang for the buck. Which is exactly what Turner South needs right now. The Atlanta-based network debuted in 1999, a spin-off of the Turner empire that paired Braves baseball games with Southern-themed movies and TV shows from the parent company's expansive library. It also broadcasts Hawks and Thrashers games, and now reaches roughly 6.4 million subscribers in six states: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

But this year, Turner South seems to have gotten wise to the "Trading Spaces" model. Nobody had heard of lightweight network TLC until a minor domestic makeover show with a clever gimmick became an unprecedented hit. "Trading Spaces" proved to the cable cabal that a low-cost successful series can solidify a brand identity — and lead to hefty profits.

By that logic Turner South has rolled out five new shows this summer, increasing its original programming from less than 10 percent to 40 percent. Among the newcomers, "Junkin'" definitely shows the most spunk, a departure from the network's somewhat pedestrian suite of cooking, travel and home design programming.

Admittedly the show, like some of its dusty flea market finds, could use a little sprucing up, though the shaky camera work and cheapo graphics do give it a certain rustic charm. The real lure of "Junkin'" — other than its sheer "where-the-fuck-do-they-find-this-stuff" factor — is the tangible chemistry between its co-hosts.

Bird, a Tennessee native who hasn't lost his accent, looks more like a dude who'd be fixing your transmission than hosting a TV show. His dry wit underscores an accommodating good-ol'-boy hospitality and perfectly complements Myers' city-girl sarcasm.

"We're like Lewis and Clark," Myers says, referring to the way they work when exploring a new flea market or yard sale. Things go better when they stick together and play off each other's unique talents. Bird cast Myers, an L.A.-based stand-up and improv comic, after listening to her daily online radio broadcast. Now folks routinely ask if the two are old friends.

As we drift through Paris on Ponce, Bird frequently stoops down and opens doors, pulls out drawers and coerces barely functional hinges to reveal their hidden treasures. He's drawn to boxes of all sorts, and nearly buys a bowling ball-shaped pipe case.

Myers, meanwhile, goes for photos — postcards, plaques, old pictures of people probably long dead. She says they spend around $50 each buying stuff for each episode, and every item they purchase goes on the website, even if it's not shown on air. Some things sell quickly — others never get a single bid.

Though Myers and Bird take frequent jabs at the junk, they still treat the experience with genuine reverence.

"I want people to have the same feeling I get when I go to flea markets," Bird says.

By the time we finish our shopping adventure, I'm surprised to find Bird empty handed. Myers buys a couple of old postcards and a high school photo she found on the floor. I ask, incredulously, how they both could resist the astronaut helmet.

"I don't put this stuff in my house," Bird says. "I like to just enjoy it and move on. "It's like the Prime Directive on 'Star Trek.' We don't keep anything."

"Junkin'" airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Turner South.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.