Hoarding: Buried Alive is a TLC show that focuses on people who suffer from a compulsion to collect and keep things until those things literally take over their house. The structure is: exposition, desperation, consultation. It begins with the participant or hoarder taking the viewer on a tour of their home. By tour I mean less a leisurely stroll and more a tight squeeze along one narrow path they have carved between mountains of junk. The hoarders then talk about how they recognize their problem but feel powerless to change. This is where the therapist comes in and the makeover begins.
During the consultation part of the show, the therapist stands in the one square of clean space left in their client’s home and asks them to discard something. The therapist says things like: “You’re holding onto the past so much that you can’t live in the present.” Or: “How does this sweater/kitchen utensil/broken soap dish, make you feel?” The hoarder cries and after much agonizing, hesitantly puts something in the box marked “discard”. One commercial break and it’s four weeks later. With editing worthy of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, trashed room is now pristine space. In spite of having a compulsion so strong that the hoarder has spent years turning every inch of their home into a dump, they have turned their life around in a few weeks. Their triumph is rooted in one of reality TV’s central lessons: transformation=life success.
In unscripted programming that promises transformation at the end of the hour (or season), change is constructed as proof that everything will be okay after all. The new house on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition means that a down and out family will prosper. The shrinking bodies on The Biggest Loser mean that the contestants’ lives will be better. The marriage proposal on The Bachelor means hope in happily ever after. These changes in economic class, romantic status and physical appearance are designed to make me feel good but they also position me to think less critically about what I’m watching. The reality of foreclosures or weight gain or acrimonious break-ups is an afterthought because I’ve already moved on to the next episode of needy family/weight struggle/single looking for love.
Watching Hoarding: Buried Alive presents a similar problem. It’s the house that’s built in a week reborn as the psychological condition conquered in one swift hour. The clean room at the end of the show is my visual cue that the hoarder is cured simply because order beat chaos. Any thoughts I might have about what it means to overcome a mental illness are overshadowed by the pleasure I feel at seeing the before and after ‘reveal’. This simplification gives me permission to pass empathy and go straight to satisfaction. The ‘reveal’ returns the hoarder’s life to a state of reassuring normalcy before I have to thoughtfully consider their condition. It doesn’t matter that this state may be temporary because I feel better now that their kitchen is no longer a closet.
Hoarding: Buried Alive brings attention to a hidden condition, but it does a disservice to both the people who fearlessly open their lives to its cameras and the viewer who is allowed to peak behind the curtain of a debilitating mental problem. By stylizing the show in the form of a third act makeover, the real work of therapeutic intervention gets lost as does any meaningful dialogue about hoarding the show might have generated. The reality of a disturbing illness, much like the hoarder’s life, remains buried somewhere in the rest of the house. The trouble is I don’t notice because I’m too busy feeling good about that new room and waiting for the next hoarder to clean up.