I've known a few hoarders over the years. The worst was a sweet 70-year-old woman whose hoarding accelerated after two hip replacement surgeries and cancer slowed her mobility down to a crawl. Like many hoarders, some of the rooms in her large if dilapidated apartment were basically inaccessible; she had cats that peed everywhere, and her kitchen was so filthy that, when I'd pass through it, I'd see dozens of cockroaches scatter across the kitchen counter.
But by far the worst thing was the smell. That smell. Indescribable. When I'd go to visit, a mile from her home I'd start breathing through my mouth, preparing myself. Long after she passed away, sometimes I'd be walking down the street and something would trigger a flashback memory to that awful stench and I could vividly smell it again, as if I were back in her living room.
Hoarders is a fascinating reality series, exploring the issue of compulsive hoarding without really exploiting its subjects, though the appalling conditions these unfortunate people create for themselves is obviously what pulls in viewers. Some of the stories are truly jaw-dropping. I made the mistake of watching the first episode over lunch; it's not a show for the faint-hearted.
A&E's Hoarders - Season Two, Part One offers seven 46-minute episodes spread across two discs. Maddeningly, though the show appears to have been shot in high-definition, the discs aren't even 16:9 enhanced, but rather 4:3 matted widescreen - often the case with A&E titles. There are no extra features.
The show follows a fairly rigid format. In each episode two hoarders are profiled (except for the first episode, which follows a single case). The hoarders themselves are interviewed about their situation and the circumstances they believe led to their hoarding. Concerned family members are interviewed; they discuss their loved one's history plus their own frustration and anger at not being able to better the situation. A clinical psychologist specializing in hoarding issues is on hand to discuss the case, later joined by a professional organizer and clean-up crew as everyone sifts through the damage and tries to make sense of it all. Most of each show's running time is devoted to this several-day clean-up, usually spurred by health and safety code violations or personal health crises. The hoarder must make choices about what to keep and what to throw away; usually in these situations they're either in denial about the extent of the problem, or the reality of just how bad things have become hits them like an emotional sledgehammer. However, the support of family, the nonjudgmental clean-up crews and psychological support usually leads to an optimistic postscript.
Hoarders works because it acknowledges the appalling, unsanitary conditions in which people find themselves while expressing enormous sympathy toward the hoarding, which seems to be triggered by a variety of understandably traumatic events: the death of a newborn baby, the grief of losing a close parent, abject fear of poverty drummed in by Depression-era parents, extreme loneliness. During the cleaning process, nothing is thrown away without the owner's permission, and the psychologists and professional cleaners are very careful not to put undue pressure on the hoarder to throw anything away - instead they encourage the hoarder to try to put every item into perspective.
The cases are extreme, most are a "9" or "10" on the 1 to 10 hoarding scale. Often hoarders go without water and electricity for years before the intervention (I guess bills get lost in the rubble, go unpaid, etc.). In one case a retired woman without running water for two years resorted to wearing adult diapers, which once soiled she tossed onto meter-high piles spread throughout the house. Surrounded by her own garbage the only space left was a small corner of a kitchen and at night she would strap herself onto a portable hospital toilet to avoid falling and being buried alive. The cleaning crew eventually removed an estimated two tons of soiled adult diapers from the home, some of which had rotted clean through the floor.
And yet, there but for the grace of God go I. One show features a retired veterinarian, a collector of beer cans - tens of thousands, stored in a warehouse-like extension of his garage. He's spent an estimated half a million dollars on this and other collections, often using myriad credit cards he can no longer afford. His is an extreme case - but it is significantly different from the hardcore DVD and Blu-ray collector and/or home theater buff? He wouldn't think so. When does a collector cross the boundary into hoarding?
Hoarders' worst cases exemplify a kind of simultaneous horrifying/comforting reality that human beings can acclimate themselves to almost any situation no matter how filthy and miserable, that even the most appalling conditions can, over time, seem almost normal. One woman, for instance, lives in a house with so many decades of personal items stacked one atop the other that dead cats squashed like pancakes are discovered between layers, victims of falling garbage. In another case a home becomes infested with bedbugs so the hoarder-father of three small kids moves his family to a tent in the yard - even as temperatures drop to freezing. To the outsider, it seems positively perverse to freeze in a tent instead of sleeping in the warm house you own 20 feet away, but for this hoarder it's perfectly logical: he wants to starve the bedbugs out.
Video & Audio
As stated above, Hoarders is needlessly presented in 4:3 matted widescreen and is not 16:9 enhanced. I zoomed the image in on my 45v 16:9 monitor and the results weren't too bad, but I really don't understand A&E's technologically backward approach to their releases. With its $19.95 SRP, it's also pretty expensive for what amounts to just seven shows with no Extra Features. The 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo is fine and the series is closed-captioned.
Despite an unimpressive presentation, Hoarders - Season Two, Part One makes for fascinating television and is recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.