Before reality TV, my chief source of voyeurism was going to open houses. When my wife and I were shopping for our first home, I used to love spending Saturday afternoons poking through other people’s lives under the aegis of a licensed realtor. Because they were for sale, these homes were unnaturally clean, but there was always one area—a linen closet or back porch or bedroom corner—where the owners’ possessions had run amok. These spaces had been conquered by workout gear or computer equipment or pet supplies, and while you knew this loss of control was a source of embarrassment to the owners, you also knew it couldn’t be helped. When a mess gets big enough, it almost becomes a member of the family.
Everyone endures a certain amount of clutter in his life, but some people are so overwhelmed by their stuff they feel compelled to appear on Clean Sweep, a home improvement show for people who have lost entire rooms to a vast accumulation of junk. This Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m. ET, the Learning Channel is running a Clean Sweep marathon, and like me, you may find yourself drawn to the show’s tough-love approach to compulsive stuffed-animal collecting and chronic purse hoarding. In each episode, the viewers meet a (usually married) couple who have two rooms in their home that are, as their mothers might say, a “disaster area.” A “professional organizer” helps the couple keep the things they need and directs them to sell or throw out what they don’t. Meanwhile, a designer plus a carpenter and his crew transform the rooms into something attractive, functional, and organized. By the end of each episode, it would be a stretch to say the couple has changed, but at least they can walk into their spare bedroom and see the floor.
Along the way, Clean Sweep gives the couple tasks and games to help them endure the purging process. One of the show’s many gimmicks is to have the couple relocate the entire contents of an offending room to tarps laid out in the backyard or the front lawn. The results are nothing short of astonishing—endless, impossible piles of plastic toys, dead tennis balls, old pay stubs, trashy paperbacks, and used wrapping paper. The scene resembles a darker, more comic version of Peter Menzel’s photographs in Material World. The couples, sweet though they are, tend to be deeply deluded about the necessity of what they own. When they begin their next exercise—sorting the junk into Keep, Sell, and Trash piles—the Sell and Trash piles are revealingly small. “We’re organizationally challenged,” says one woman in an effort to defend herself. No, my friend. You live in a garbage house.
But just when you’re feeling superior, Clean Sweep throws in a twist that humanizes both owner and object. That giant, stained, stuffed Tweety Bird isn’t a piece of trash; it’s a reminder of a magical day at the county fair. And those crutches aren’t medical waste but an aging jock’s talisman against future injuries. The rationalizations and justifications for keeping an item are often absurd, but you can imagine yourself being equally ridiculous. Clean Sweep reveals the flip side of American consumerism: It’s not only wanting what you don’t have; it’s being terrified of losing what you do.
Coaxing the couples into letting go isn’t easy. The show’s professional organizers act like amateur therapists, employing reason, charm, and bullying tactics to persuade couples to give up such questionable treasures as a violin neither knows how to play, a bicycle that hasn’t been ridden in 10 years, or mountains of baby clothes owned by a couple who aren’t sure they’re going to have more kids. (These were being stored in white kitchen garbage bags on a sofa in the couple’s bedroom.) Very little gets tossed without a fight, but all the participants eventually come to their senses. I’m sure there’s a high recidivism rate among Clean Sweep couples. After all, if a grown woman has been collecting pig memorabilia since she was a teenager, we can’t honestly expect her to stop because of a TV show. Nevertheless, by the end of each episode, the couple is always grateful and optimistic, and it’s hard to begrudge them their happiness. Yet as the camera pans across smartly redecorated spaces, you know the only thing that can spoil these tidy new rooms is the people who will inhabit them.