The A&E reality series Hoarders concluded its latest season on March 12 with a pair of tragic stories, each of which builds to a dramatic cliffhanger: a threat to relocate one hoarder to a nursing home in one; the surprise discovery of a noose in the other. As in all episodes of the show, we learn at the end whether these subjects have accepted “aftercare,” in the form of therapy and/or the services of professional organizers. And as with all episodes of the show, I feel slightly ashamed of what it is about the episode—and about the series as a whole—that makes it … well, enjoyable seems like the wrong word. But, obviously, I wouldn’t watch the show (and tweet about it, and avidly recount it with friends) if it wasn’t entertaining, in its dark, depressing way. And I’m not alone: since its return in January, Hoarders has grown 60 percent in total viewers.
Reality TV had dealt with hoarding before Hoarders. TLC’s Clean Sweep and Style’s Clean House framed the problem as “clutter.” Though it’s clear that hoarding their homes past the point of livability is a real source of pain for the subjects of Clean House, describing their disease as “Clutter-itis“ rather than as, well, mental illness minimizes it as a manageable quirk. If either show’s producers connected subjects with therapists, it didn’t happen on camera.
The playful tone of both shows was that of a fresh and unique take on the home-owning experience. I liked House more than Sweep because the latter wasn’t sufficiently punitive of its messy subjects, and felt no guilt. After all, our search for new opportunities to judge strangers is why reality television exists. The pleasure of judging strangers is the reason I watch Supernanny (though I don’t have kids) and The Dog Whisperer (though I don’t have a dog) and What Not To Wear (though my personal style is impeccable). I wasn’t watching Clean Sweep and Clean House to get organizational tips I could apply to my own clutter; my home is compulsively tidy. I was watching shows about people who weren’t on my level so that I could feel superior.
When Hoarders came along, my reasons for watching it were no different—but my feelings about watching it were much more complicated. No one involved in the production of Hoarders could make its subjects’ problems seem cute or quirky. These people’s homes are so irredeemably messy that they’re suffering from health problems due to mold, dust, or worse. Their plumbing or electricity hasn’t been functional in years. Animal waste—from pets, pests, or both—is everywhere. They’re so unable to help themselves that they’re risking eviction. These hoards are serious, and the show takes them very seriously.
But what’s diabolical about Hoarders is how it vacillates between ascribing its subjects’ behavior to what is obviously untreated mental illness, and seeming to blame them for having given up on their lives. Although Hoarders does connect its subjects with psychologists, who are on the scene for clean-up, it limits that clean-up to just two days. So in the season finale, the show’s producers are giving Constance the opportunity to work with a professional on dealing with the underlying issue that led her to fill her house with four lifetimes’ worth of clothing—some of it never worn—and dozens of her chickens’ now-rotten eggs. But the clean-up requires her to make hundreds of decisions about what to keep and why, when she’s clearly spent decades never making any decisions at all. (By contrast, TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive unspools over a much longer timeline, so that after a matter of months, the viewer can see how effective therapy has been in changing the hoarder’s thinking and behavior.)
On Hoarders, compressing the clean-up to such an artificially limited time frame may address the hoarder’s immediate crisis—like Constance’s daughter Angela’s belief that Constance needs to move into a nursing home—as quickly as possible. What it certainly does is ratchet up everyone’s stress levels, the better to make good TV—and I mean “good” in the sense of addictively watchable, as opposed to “good” in the sense of “morally defensible.”
Ostensibly, the point of the series is documentary, to demystify hoarding to the average viewer. But if every episode were just a stranger’s tragic story, the series would eventually make us feel less nosy than sad. Hoarders producers solve this by casting, almost exclusively, people who appear to be awful: They’re resistant to change, ungrateful for help, often abusive to the professionals and loved ones who are digging through their piles of soiled diapers and deceased pets. Of course the hoarders’ obstreperous attitudes are due, at least in part, to their various illnesses. We’re meeting these people at the lowest point in their lives. Their untreated depression, OCD, or bipolar disorder has led them to the brink of disaster, and what’s worse, they’re only receiving help because they’ve agreed to expose their shameful secrets to the cameras. No wonder they’re angry.
But the show rarely frames them that way. Instead, the hoarders seem to deserve all the pain they’re dealing with—and, therefore, we need feel no guilt for judging them. In the penultimate episode of this season, hoarder Anna threatened her daughter with physical violence before the clean-up has even begun. Constance, in the finale, responds to innocuous questions by snapping, in exasperation, “Throw it away. Throw me away.” The impression we’re left with is that the hoarders wouldn’t be in the position they’re in if they were nice.
Jeri Jo, whose story is told alongside Constance’s in the finale, clearly has stories she’s withholding from the cameras: She’s distant from her siblings, she’s married a convicted murderer who’s been incarcerated for more than 30 years, and when her family finds a noose in the rafters in her garage, she chuckles that she put it there as a joke and planned to hang a teddy bear from it. Any of these would be fruitful topics for Jeri Jo to explore with a therapist, but Hoarders doesn’t dig, because the cleaning crew only has a couple of days to shovel the garbage out of her living room.
I don’t feel good about playing voyeur to Jeri Jo’s pain. But I’m not going to stop watching, either. In fact, not only will I continue to watch Hoarders, but I’ve added other hoarding shows to my DVR, including Hoarding: Buried Alive and the British special Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder. “I don’t know how it got so out of control,” says Jeri Jo of the state of her home, and I know how she feels: Just as Jeri Jo and Constance get a high from shopping that leads to the shame of hoarding, I get a high of superiority from watching their stories, followed by the shame of using my leisure time to watch their self-destruction.
There’s no Adult Protective Services to stop the cycle, for me. But even if someone found a way to purge all the hoarding shows from my cable box—and someone should, because there’s one on Animal Planet that I know I’m going to start watching eventually—I’d be just as resilient as the hoarders who, when they run out of money, acquire more stuff from the trash.
I’d just switch to weight-loss shows.