Hoarders has often been accused of sensationalizing and/or exploiting its subjects and their mental illness. I think the opposite is true, and I’ve long championed it and defended it, writing about it extensively, because it was strong reality television and an important series.
In the six seasons that aired on A&E before it was cancelled, it was an often-fascinating, often-heartbreaking, always-educational look at mental illness. The show actually helped expose hoarding disorder and its prevalence, and showed hoarders–and their family members–that they are not alone. The hoards and emotions were often brutally, uncomfortably real, but it truly was reality. It didn’t need to be dramatized or sensationalized.
Yet Hoarders Live, Thursday night’s episode, did just that.
From the very first shot, it seemed wrong. Dr. David Tolin was standing, with an unnaturally wide stance, in front of a house. Besides using a hoard as a television backdrop, he kept playing up the drama and potential for disaster. He threw to commercial by teasing what might happen. “In less than 10 minutes, I’ll enter Richard Van Kleef’s home, live,” he said at one point. “In my experience, this moment is unpredictable. And this is live TV, folks. I have no idea what could happen next.”
Considering the hoarder let live camera crews and trucks set up in his front yard, and was already interviewed by the show’s producers along with his family members, I’m pretty sure we all knew what was going to happen and that it wasn’t going to be a surprise at all. So why pretend?
An unscripted show scripts too much
For the show’s first episode on Lifetime, someone and/or some people made a terrible decision to have a live episode. I was skeptical about this but trusted the network and especially the show’s producers, Screaming Flea Productions, because I know how thoughtful and careful they are with producing this series.
This is not a series that scripts or stages scenes. And yet it returns to television with an episode that’s half scripted and staged. What was everyone thinking?
Halfway through the episode, I was rooting for Richard to open the door, tell Tolin that he’d been watching this travesty on TV, and didn’t want to participate any more. When Dr. Tolin finally was allowed inside, as if that wasn’t going to happen, there was a camera crew already in there to get the opposite angle. Tolin then proceeded to feign surprise at what he was seeing. “Whoa! Can you smell that, Richard?” he said, looking at the fridge. “Boy, I think we’ve got some very expired foods in here.”
I can understand why they didn’t use a professional host, which would be even worse, and I also understand that Tolin is a doctor, though he’s done lots of television. But that doesn’t change how terrible he was at all of this, from reading questions off cards to basically hosting a talk show in the middle of a hoard that tried to guide everything toward a climax.
Earlier, he awkwardly interviewed Matt Paxton–who also did a pre-taped tour of the outside of the house–and a “concerned neighbor.” That took place in Richard’s yard, which was lit and shot in a way that made it look like a backlot facade. All of this made a truly real show feel absurdly fake.
An update on a previous hoard
The live parts took up about half the episode. The rest was update on Jim, a hoarder from season three. During those segments, the “live” bug stayed on the screen even though this was all pre-recorded. After we learned that Jim relapsed, which was devastating considering how much progress he made on the show, we followed him as Cory Chalmers drove him to court and maybe even jail.
The update felt wrong, too, when Cory showed up to help clean Jim’s house unannounced. Surprise, Jim wasn’t happy. Why is the show suddenly surprising people? At least, however, this pre-recorded footage allowed the show to resemble its former self.
Next week, Hoarders returns to its non-live format. I’m truly thrilled the show is back and has the opportunity to continue to do good work, both with the people it’s helping and with those who are watching.
I hope it will be like it used to be and this will be an unfortunate footnote in its history. And I hope this serves as a lesson to TV networks and executives seeking live content as the solution to decreasing viewership and attention: not everything can or should be live.