I’m not a fan of reality TV in general, but I love a good documentary, and there’s a whole subset of TV shows that get tarred with the reality brush because they straddle the line between exploitive and educational. So while the BBC does a pretty great job of mixing fact with fake-shun, stuff purporting to be real—like Celebrity Rehab—does far more harm than good.
A&E’s new show Hoarders tries to take a slightly more serious angle than most, documenting a serious problem but also playing a little bit of the “look at the freaks!” game. (At least they’re sort of upfront about it.) What’s the problem, you ask? It’s right there in the title: Hoarders is about people with the compulsion to keep and collect everything. There’s probably one in your neighborhood—the guy with newspapers stacked to the ceiling, or the lady whose basement is 90% cat food, eaten and uneaten.
The debut episode followed two fairly different cases, a Kentucky couple and a Milwaukee woman whose mental illnesses were similar but seemed to come from very different places. Jennifer and Ron and their kids basically just lived in complete disarray: Their house didn’t look terribly dirty—at least not compared to Jill’s—but there was just stuff everywhere. One room was essentially dedicated to dirty laundry, with everything just thrown on the floor. The family of five ate dinner in bed together every night, because there was no place else in the house that they could gather.
The fault was with Ron, who had some sort of emotional attachment to everything he saw, from broken old toy cars to nasty-ass mattresses. But his wife was a classic enabler—her husband’s mental problem allowed to her to have one of her own: She loved to buy things, and he would never let her get rid of them. They certainly didn’t seem like bad people, but there was a clear sense that they just weren’t very smart—as if they didn’t realize that throwing things away would make their house less cluttered.
Jill, a 60-year-old Milwaukee woman, was in a far more advanced state of mental illness. Her hoarding obsession led to an absolute disaster of the filthiest proportions imaginable—a refigerator packed to the gills with rotting food, not to mention rotting food just randomly strewn about her house. She was facing eviction (the first couple was facing the “loss of their children,” which seemed like the most trumped-up-for-TV bullshit ever) if she didn’t start to clear things out. But what do you do when multiple pumpkins have rotted into liquid on your dining room floor? Or when your 2-year-old frozen Ricotta cheese still looks appetizing to you?
In both cases, “experts” were brought in to administer wake-up calls. In the case of the Milwaukee woman, both a clinical psychologist (who was kind of a condescending asshole) and an “organizational expert” were employed to help clean things up. This consisted of guys in haz-mat suits and shovels begging her to let them throw shit away while the shrink basically told her that she needed to realize that she has a problem. Guy, a woman who will eat any packaged food as long as it’s not too puffed out from age is not going to change overnight. Also, didn’t you see her grab some pumpkin seeds from her rotting pumpkin so she could try and plant… more pumpkins?
And yes, that’s where the exploitive nature shows up at least a bit. We’re shown these people not for any real purpose other than entertainment, which says to me that Hoarders will wear out its welcome fairly quickly. Trashed houses will look the same week in and week out, and the root problem—that some people assign value to worthless, sometimes harmful shit for no apparent reason—won’t likely change as time goes by. Sure, there might be an episode where somebody just has the craziest collection of random crap, and you won’t be able to turn away from it. But it’s kind of a one-trick pony, and the trick is a little cruel.
— Who are these organizational experts, anyway? What kind of weird job is that?
— There was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for the Kentucky couple, so that was a plus for this show.
— Man, that woman’s kitchen was a nightmare. When a guy whose job it is to clean up filthy shitholes says it’s the worst one he’s seen, you know you’re in bad shape.