“I thought my TV career was done,” Matt Paxton said. He’d been on Hoarders for a decade when he decided to quit the show in 2017. “It provided for my family,” he said, but being the extreme cleaning specialist who managed the work on houses hoarded by people suffering was “overwhelming,” he said. “It can be a lot.”
After leaving the show and TV, Matt told me recently, “I started to kind of look for a real job and I didn’t want one.” He create that job instead: he started his own production company and developed a new reality show focused on telling positive stories, which he thought the world needed and wanted—and that networks rejected.
Of course, Matt Paxton was never really gone from TV—Hoarders is now on Netflix, introducing him to a whole new audience, including in his own family. “My girlfriend’s daughter, she was watching Hoarders on Netflix, and she’s like, There’s a skinny guy that looks like you on TV! I was like, That’s me 10 years ago, dude. She didn’t even know I was on TV.”
Now he’s back with new content. Two new episodes of Hoarders he filmed last fall (“Dennis” and “Cindy”) air this month. He’s also filming new episodes of Hoarders this summer, along with episodes of his new show, Legacy List, which will return for a second season on PBS.
We recently discussed both shows, talking about everything from the challenges of filming this year to what’s changed on Hoarders since he left.
Filming now, in the middle of a global pandemᎥc that’s still raging in the United States, has created new challenges for Matt.
With all the safety precautions—“we scaled our crew down significantly”; “everyone gets tested before you go; you get tested daily”; “the only time you don’t have a mask on is if you’re filming a scene, and they’re shooting longer angles”—Matt told me that he’s struggled with “trying to find a way to connect” with people in person and on camera.
“The hardest thing for me is I can’t hug anybody,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much physical touch was a part of my method.” Nonverbal communication is hard, too: “I use a lot of jokes, and if you have your mask on, you can’t read a face.”
“I just did an episode of Legacy List last week. And the lady was like, I would normally give you a hug and I was like, I would too. We did, like, an air hug. That’s been really weird. I didn’t realize how much I rely on it. I have to come a little more prepared with words. … I’m more now about vernacular than touch, because that’s all I can do to get a get a connection.”
Since Hoarders has often involved work in environmentally unsafe environments, and not just when there are dead rats or human feces to deal with, the production was used to protecting themselves. Matt told me that “the cost of our safety gear has gone up substantially. And I’m not flying I’m driving now”—even if it’s from the east coast to the west coast.
But otherwise, “every protocol we had for Hoarders is the exact same, with the exception of the isolation. There’s no going out and having drinks, or even having dinner.” Matt also joked that “I’m losing weight because there’s no food at the craft services table. They give you a little bit of a snack—it’s in your own little bag, and your own water.”
Casting for Legacy List‘s second season meant prioritizing safety. While some cast members have been savvy—“The people we’re filming have started to say, Well, I want to see who’s been tested,” Matt told me—there are others who aren’t aware of the danger of having strangers in their homes for days.
“We’ve had a couple really good prospects that we couldn’t shoot,” Matt said. With one person, the production was ready to film, but “we had to cancel because we knew it wasn’t safe for her. And she, quite honestly, it was in Texas, and she really wasn’t aware of how bad it was there. And I had to say, ma’am, we’re canceling to protect you.”
‘A cable network would have just said no’
Legacy List is more Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers than Hoarders, and it also has elements of Finding Your Roots.
In each episode, Matt and his team—which includes two people who’ve worked with him since the Clutter Cleaner days, Mike Kelleher and Avi Hopkins, and Jaime Ebanks, all of whom have expertise with different kinds of objects and collectibles—help someone who’s downsizing, moving, or cleaning out an estate.
Their goal is to find items that have meaning but have been lost to time and/or clutter. But it’s also to tell the story of those items—and of their owners—and the result is affecting, moving television. Instead of illuminating mental illness, as Hoarders does, Legacy List puts a spotlight on people who don’t often get attention in pop culture and reality TV, and allows them to tell the stories of their lives through some of their possessions.
In episode three, for example, Lillian Lincoln Lambert and her husband Johnny are downsizing and moving to a smaller place. Lillian was first Black woman to get an MBA from Harvard Business School, although she wasn’t aware of that record at the time. She went on to found Centennial One, and wrote a book about her life: The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond.
One of the things she hoped to find during her downsizing was a deed to property that her father, a Black man, owned in 1928. That leads an expert the show connected with to discover that the property was given to her father by the widow of a doctor—a woman whose name was excluded from records because she was a woman. Meanwhile, the Legacy List team learns that Lillian’s great-great-grandfather was actually a white man and a slave owner, something she didn’t know.
While the episode goes into depth about some things they find during the episode, there’s a sort of reveal at the end when Matt shares his team’s discoveries in a conversation that is often quite emotional. (Matt said it takes about 90 minutes to film, even though it only results in about six minutes of on-screen time.)
Why Matt Paxton created Legacy List
The idea for the show came “just after the election,” Matt told me. “Hoarders was killing it. And people were like, Why are you leaving?” His answer: “This is the story I want to tell.”
He wanted to focus on people who are’t normally TV’s focus: older people. “It was really important to me that I get the stories of grandma and grandpa,” Matt said. “And that was a hard pitch.”
“I knew a third of the country is going to go to downsizing the next 20 years. It’s either an estate clean out, or they’re moving. They’ve been in [a house for] 50 years. It’s not hoarding,” just perhaps clutter and disorganization or too much stuff to know where anything is.
It was also important to Matt to focus on positivity, especially after the 2016 election. “We were all kind of shell shocked. I couldn’t believe he won—and not trying to get political here, but I was just like, Well, man, more than ever, I know we’re going to be needing positive content in two year. I remember saying that in pitches. That was going off of what we saw in those debates! That was our barometer at that point. I was like, He’s making fun of handicapped people—that’s not okay.“
But cable TV networks didn’t want what Matt was selling.
“Everybody passed. They’re like, nobody wants to see people of a certain age. What they more passed on was positive content. They’re like, There’s no drama. This is not a show. Where’s the arc? They couldn’t understand,” Matt told me. “Even when we pitched it to some networks that were interested. They were like, Great, is there an attractive granddaughter? I don’t know!”
“A buddy was like, well, have you thought about public television? I was like, I don’t think there’s any money in public television. And he’s like, There’s not. But you could tell your story.”
Matt pitched, and received an immediate yes from VPM. “They’re like, sounds awesome. What does it look like? Get us a sizzle,” a short version of a pilot.
When filming began, it quickly became clear that there was plenty of drama. “We kind of found our groove as we were filming season one. When producers and everybody started seeing the emotion, they’re like, oh, wait a minute, this is real. We can do this. We don’t need any type of, you know, overproduced reality. It’s there,” Matt said.
“These stories kept coming, and they’re just insane and amazing. There were amazing stories of powerful, strong women in their family’s past— that’s what I didn’t expect. Season two, I’m like, All right, who was a badass woman? That was my great grandma.”
The show does give attention to objects, but instead of focusing on their financial value, it focuses on their emotional value, and the story behind them.
“When I’m in the edit bay with the editors,, I just want to make sure we’re acknowledging like the struggle that seniors are going through,” Matt said. “We’re acknowledging all the players in the era: we’re acknowledging the grandkids that don’t want it, we’re acknowledging the adult children that are the managing it, and then we’re acknowledging grandma, grandpa, the ones who are actually moving. All three of their emotions are acknowledged validated—and then I want funny stories,” too.
Legacy List also doesn’t shy away from providing historical context, giving attention in its first-season episodes to income equality and racism. In one episode that was filmed last year and aired in earlier 2020, the episode told the story of Shirley Macon, a retired teacher whose relatives worked and protested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And it connected those protests in Selma, Alabama, to current efforts to end systemic racism.
There’s an image of a Black Lives Matter protest in the episode, and Matt said there was some pushback on that—though not from the network. “One of the questions came that was, should we be showing that? And it was from a line producer. When we got to the network—and that’s the beauty of public television—they were just like, Yeah, why wouldn’t we?”
Matt said that VPM, which calls itself “Virginia’s home for public media,” has been completely supportive. The show cast an elderly gay couple. “I called the network executives said, Look, I know you want diversity, but I think you just went black and white diverse. This is different. I’ve two guys that are going to be hugging and loving each other, kissing each other, and like whatever the emotions are, they are. Keep in mind, these guys weren’t even allowed to love each other, you know, 20 years ago. Then it got real quiet.”
Matt said the VPM executive told him: “If this isn’t what we want, then I took the wrong job. You don’t even need to ask me this any more.”
He points out that a “cable network would have just said no, or they would have said like, get the mom on there to get upset about it.” But there’s no need to manufacture drama on Legacy List.
“They’re pretty much just like, tell the truth, tell a good story, and tell the stories that you can’t tell anywhere else,” Matt said.
Those stories start with research. Mike Kelleher “spends a lot of time with the family doing research” of several hundred items, Matt said. That’s in part so that the show can contact the right experts who can do their own research and provide context. But Matt doesn’t know what they’ve learned.
“My whole goal on Legacy List is, I’m just a curious dude walking through the house. I look at it as if I’m walking through a museum, and I just had a tour guide. So I don’t want to know a lot of the stuff. But my team has to know what they’re looking at.”
That’s very different than his other show, which requires Matt to prepare more. “With Hoarders, you have to really research the mental illness side, the trauma,” he said. “I’ve got to understand what the abuse was or the trauma was so I can actually connect, and I can learn how to communicate properly.”
On Hoarders, the cleanup crew is now ‘tripling our time in the house’
Almost two years passed until Matt Paxton returned to Hoarders last year, when it was revived by a new production company, after the old company, Screaming Flea, fell apart and shut down.
“I had given up on Hoarders, and was surprised when a new production company got it,” Matt told me. With that change came a new format and focus for the long-running reality show: “That they took it in a more positive [direction]. I’m all in on positive content; I just believe that’s the future. I’m not doing anything if it’s not positive,” Matt said.
A&E was glad to have Matt back, even though he’s also working on his PBS series. “They were very supportive to me and they even were very supportive on my show,” he told me. “Honestly I did not expect them to be cool. And they were great about it. … I never thought I can live in both worlds too but the networks have been really supportive too. I’m lucky.”
Hoarders season 11 began filming last fall, and restarted this summer, and the new format—which focuses on one story for two hours—also allowed the production to add days working at the person’s home.
The fifth episode of the new season of Hoarders, which premiered Aug. 17, focused on a retired architect, Dennis, who was caring for his wife, Judy, who needs constant care because of Parkinson’s disease. Watch:
The show used to spend about three days on location, with two solid days of clean-up, plus a half-day of set-up. Now, Matt told me, they have six days of cleaning.
“We’re really tripling our time in the house. And you really get to know the family and you spend a lot of time with them,” he said. “What you really don’t see is the therapist gets a lot of one on one time with individual family members. You’re able to deal with the root cause, you’re not just throwing shit away. You actually get to address what caused it what trauma, what tragedy.”
“To have a therapist on set for seven days, that’s pretty awesome,” Matt said. “It allows you to do a better job.”
And while he’s helping hoarders on a show that offers support to them and also brings attention to a mental illness that was largely unknown until the reality show gave it a national platform, Matt is also at work telling the positive stories that he believed so strongly in.
“It’s been a blessing to be on public television getting to tell real stories,” Matt said. And on Hoarders, “I’m lucky that I’ve had that longevity.”