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Hoarders: Obsessed

29 Jun

I can’t stop watching Hoarders. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t want to stop watching Hoarders. This isn’t an Intervention-level addiction—if you made me quit Hoarders cold turkey, I would manage, though I’d definitely feel bummed for a while. I don’t know that I’d experience much if any withdrawal, but chances are I’d latch onto another deeply compelling reality series as quickly as possible.

I’m not actually concerned with the amount of Hoarders I watch, especially given that there’s a limited supply. My bigger issue is what my obsession with Hoarders says about me. I watch each episode in horror, fascinated and disgusted by the collections these people have amassed, but yes, there is pleasure in it, too. Am I watching Hoarders the same way certain people watch NASCAR? Just as they wait for a fiery crash, am I hoping for the discovery of a mummified animal? And because I consider myself a reasonably compassionate individual, I’m forced to consider the implications of all this. Simply put, does watching a Hoarders marathon make me a bad person?

I can’t come up with a clear answer. There’s no denying that watching Hoarders is a bit like gawking at a car wreck. And saying “it’s human nature” is a cop-out: it’s also human nature to take things that aren’t ours and use violence when we feel threatened. We’re supposed to keep these impulses at bay, and a lot of us do a bang-up job. Of course, I’m not harming anyone by watching Hoarders, but I may not be giving its subjects the respect they deserve. Sure, they’ve all agreed to being on camera, but almost every one acknowledges the embarrassment of revealing the inside of their homes.

But in exchange for appearing on camera, these compulsive hoarders receive the treatment they need to move on with their lives. (It’s not always successful: as with A&E’s Intervention, the final results are in the addict’s hands.) In that way, Hoarders may be a necessary evil—if it is exploitation, it’s also a way out for people who are literally trapped in their homes. And I still feel a little crappy about it! There was a time when carnival sideshows were the only way people with certain disabilities could make ends meet. So yes, go see the “Siamese twins” and help them earn a living. But at the end of the day, you’re still just ogling the “freaks.”

Obviously none of these concerns have stopped me from watching Hoarders. In my defense, I do feel satisfied when they get their houses cleaned. It’s not all about the schadenfreude of seeing what a mess someone else has created—it’s the thrill of the classic reality television redemption story. You start off seeing how bad things can get, and then you watch in amazement as they find a light at the end of the tunnel. The difference between watching Hoarders and watching a car crash or a sideshow is that the end result is a positive one. After the horror has passed, these people (ideally) move on to a better life.

There’s also a certain level of empathy involved, and it’s taken me a while to acknowledge that. I’m not the best housekeeper myself, and while I have never lived among boxes stacked to the ceiling, I’m well aware of how things can get out of hand. Part of what makes Hoarders so scary is the fear that it could happen to us. Sometimes you reach a breaking point, or something just snaps, and suddenly you stop caring. Maybe it starts small—I know I’ve left clothes on my bed for far too long—until it becomes so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I will never get to that point (I’m posting this on the internet, so you know it’s true), but in the back of my mind, I understand how it could happen.

Maybe that’s what separates Hoarders from more exploitative entertainment—but it could just as easily be true of shows like Intervention and Obsessed as well. The act of watching someone at the lowest point of his or her life is indeed ambiguous. And I think yes, simply tuning in to judge is a pretty crappy thing to do. But if you can find that empathy and root for the person’s success, maybe it’s not so bad that you also enjoy the “real-life drama.” After all, you’re only human.

Crossposted to Huffington Post Entertainment here.

You’re doing it wrong

21 Jun

This isn’t a review of the season finale of AMC’s The Killing. I already wrote a review for TV.com, and this site sums up my frustrations better than I ever could. But what I wasn’t able to touch on in my piece is the way some of the critical reaction really irked me—well, not the critical reaction so much as the critical reaction to the critical reaction. Still with me?

While most critics seemed to agree that The Killing finale was a colossal disappointment, some argued that it was exactly what the series needed. Fine, we can agree to disagree. But rather than just acknowledge a difference in opinion, I saw several versions of the “You weren’t watching it right” argument. I’m not even sure it can be called an argument, but the basic idea is that the reason people (myself included) didn’t appreciate The Killing‘s season finale is that we had a faulty conception of the series. More specifically, we were too consumed with the idea of determining the identity of Rosie’s killer and missed the point entirely. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Where have I heard that before? (Outside of sex columns, that is.) Ah, yes, the contentious season finale of Lost—which, for the record, I loved. As the modern classic series approached its end and it became clear that all our burning questions weren’t going to be answered, some felt no ill will at all. Lost was always about the characters, so not knowing why women can’t have babies on the island or what the deal with Walt was or [insert your loose end of choice here] wasn’t a big deal. Others were a little more indignant: “We stuck with your roller coaster of a show for six years. You owe us some goddamn answers.” As far as I’m concerned, both sides made valid points. But nothing riled me up more than seeing critics I respected spouting the same line of bullshit: “If you’re watching Lost for the answers, you’re watching Lost wrong.”

The condescension in statements like this is obvious, but what really strikes me is the ego required. It’s “I’m right and you’re wrong” on a whole different level. If you’re convinced someone else is somehow watching a show incorrectly, you must also be sure that your manner of watching is the one, true way. How can anyone be sure of that? (I don’t even know if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse would agree on the right way to appreciate Lost.) I think this is especially galling when it comes from a critic. Expressing one’s opinion is part of the job, but suggesting that said opinion is the only valid one discounts the likely diverse views of one’s readers. It is insulting to everyone’s intelligence but one’s own. And that’s kind of dickish, right?

I also hate the way this line of reasoning limits discussion. If someone is angry over The Killing finale, telling him that he simply doesn’t get it halts the conversation. How do you respond to that? The black-and-white nature of “a right and wrong way” mentality makes it impossible to find a middle ground. Not to mention the fact that it provides an easy out. Case in point: “I loved The Killing finale because I understood what the series was trying to do all along.”

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with legitimately loving the finale! Or the Lost finale. Or any number of divisive TV episodes. I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My point is, there are always reasons to like or dislike everything, and chalking opinions up to a fundamental misunderstanding of the material is an easy and obnoxious out. Of course, this is never going to change, and there will always be critics who bug me, whether they write about TV, film, music, literature, or what have you. My goal has always been to write for a wide audience, and to sound informed without sounding like a jerk. I hope I’ve at least partially accomplished that. And if you ever hear me say that you’re watching something wrong, feel free to tell me to shove “the right way” up my ass.