In watching TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” (new episodes return July 10, 9 p.m. EST) and A&E’s “Hoarders,” I was tempted to break down the subtle differences between the two to create an easy viewing guide for you, dear reader, so that you might be able to determine which show is a better use of your valuable lounging-around-and-eating-chips-on-the-sofa time. But that was before I kept pausing my television to scream, “OH MY GOD, is that flat, furry thing the cleaner picked up a cat carcass? And why oh why is that woman trying to KEEP it? Are those rats? Is that wall of gooey looking stuff actually POOP? I feel sick. I think I have to go clean something. Throw up first, then clean something.”
Welcome to the joys of hoarding TV.
What is perhaps most disturbing (and there is so, so much that is disturbing about these shows) is that there are enough hoarders in the U.S. (more than three million, according to the intro to “Hoarders”) to fuel not one, but two hour-long basic cable TV shows. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. America is the land of acquisition, where people define themselves by what they wear, what they drive and, yes, what they buy. Had a crappy childhood? Buy a bajillion dolls, stuff them into trash bags and declare yourself, well, if not better, at least temporarily and very weirdly soothed. And it does seem that every hoarder carries within them some early trauma (more on that later) that has spurred them to collect stuff until a relative feels compelled to call Adult Protective Services and/or a TV show. Which brings us to another disturbing, depressing detail – the sheer predictability of hoarding TV.
While there is some small dramatic tension in waiting to see how much crap a hoarder will allow to be dragged away, it’s one of the few variables from show to show. The hoarders even start to look the same – an unbroken chain of gray, pale and flabby. Most of them wear sweatpants. The more nimble hoarders don sneakers, as they must clamber, mountain goat style, over piles of fast food containers, litter box effluvia and dead rats to reach their (probably vermin infested) beds.
But maybe the most striking feature they share is their personalities. With a few exceptions, most of them seem nice, but nice in that way that suggests that they’d secretly like to beat you (or anyone who dares to touch their precious collection of disposable forks) to death with a claw hammer. In a recent episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” one part-time art teacher and mother of five giggled and smiled, crazy-eyed but pleasant enough, throughout the process – until one of her children tried to chuck the Noah’s Ark lamp she someday (read: never) hoped to incorporate into a laundry room redesign. Only then did she drop the meek schoolgirl routine to shriek at her son with the unleashed rage of a rabies-infected wolverine for having the gall to act as if he lived there! Like a person! And had the basic human right to be able to not have fourteen tons of foul smelling and possibly smallpox-infected crap in his face twenty-four hours a day!
The frustration with both of these shows is that, while we can definitely see lives go to hell in a dumptruck, we rarely get beyond the surface of not only the mess but the real problems that have turned these people into hoarders. Therapists wander into the homes, delicately tiptoe over enormous piles of cat feces, then explain to us that yes, Jane really needs to change things before the city decides to bulldoze her house. To put it succinctly, duh. There’s no attempt at talk therapy, unless you consider, “Dude, let us clear out your crap before someone calls the health department” Freudian analysis.
While shows about drug, alcohol and gambling addiction (A&E’s other people-with-problems series “Intervention” comes to mind) go to great lengths to fill in the gaps, no such care is taken with hoarders. On “Intervention,” we get a veritable resume of exactly how each life has gone off the rails: everything was fine with Billy until his parents divorced/his stepfather sexually abused him/he started hanging out with the wrong crowd/he looked at someone funny and his face froze that way. Other than a glancing explanation (oh, John used to do drugs and now he hoards stuff) on these two shows, we’re left in the dark about what drives someone to accumulate twenty tons of old newspapers and broken toys. We’re simply confronted with their enormous piles of stinky, damaged stuff, as if the crap itself is answer enough. Ironically, while the subjects of each show may feel their stuff defines them, the truth is they remain enigmas, shyly peering around their piles.
So at the end of each episode, all we’re left with is the relief of seeing dead rats neatly disposed of, feces industriously scrubbed away by people in hazmat suits and piles of unloved dolls donated to those who might actually play with them. In short, it’s pretty much the vicarious thrill we used to get from home redesigns in the 90s, but with a dose of insanity and mess more often associated with a police procedural. Finally, we’re able to look around our own abodes and think, well, the dust bunnies under the bed? Not so bad. We’re also able to worry, if we're so inclined, about what separates us and our growing pile of unclipped coupons and unfolded socks from these sad, lonely hoarders. Hopefully a lot, but neither “Hoarders” or “Hoarding: Buried Alive” attempts to give us any answers.
The verdict: Interchangeable, but whichever one you watch, make sure you schedule time to compulsively clean your house for at least an hour after viewing. Trust me, you'll want to.