A&E’s Hoarders is the best depiction of mental illness on TV today

A&E’s reality series Hoarders ends its first season tonight at 10 p.m., having established itself as television’s best illustration of mental illness.

I’ve never liked the predecessor to Hoarders, A&E’s Intervention, in part because it’s too dark and depressing, and in part because it’s not that visually interesting. But following people who are compulsive hoarders is extremely compelling television, even when it is disturbing.

Hoarders works because you can see mental illness and its effects on screen like never before: in piles of trash, or rotting food, or feces-covered toilet paper, or, in one especially disturbing episode, dozens of dead cats. The two people featured in each episode are usually at some kind of turning point–their relationship is deteriorating, they’re going to be evicted–and so a professional organizer and/or specialist comes in with a cleaning crew to help them deal with what has accumulated over the years.

Why can’t the show’s subjects just throw this crap away? It’s garbage like dog hair or rancid food, and seems utterly irrational and pointless to keep it around, especially when it makes their homes virtually uninhabitable (the people who come in to help often wear masks and are clearly horrified by what they see).

But the subjects’ mental illness–for which hoarding may just be a symptom–prevents them from being able to do that, which makes it obvious that they aren’t just being stubborn. That frustration is clear in friends and family members, but particularly in the workers who have been hired to help clean up. They can’t understand why it matters that they threw away a piece of broken tile, for example.

While we’re used to clean-up shows like Clean House, where a house goes from shitbox to well-organized, well-designed space in an hour, the homes of people on Hoarders are not transformed like that, nor are the people’s lives. The series stays true to the reality of this illness and shows us just how hard it is to make progress, and that progress is visually obvious. Sometimes it’s a clear victory; sometimes it’s utter failure. But it’s the process that matters, because that’s what really shows us what life is like for the 3 million people A&E says are compulsive hoarders.

Hoarders: A

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.