Reality Bites

Reality Bites: Hoarding: Buried Alive

​​There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch all of them, one at a time.

Are you not entertained?

The overwhelming majority of reality shows -- like, for example, Ghost Adventures -- positively beg for ridicule. The participants usually run the gamut from amiable dingbats (any of those pawn shop shows) to physical embodiments of evil (any edition of Real Housewives)

However, shows like Hoarders or Intervention or True Life are more akin to grim documentaries. There's no call to make fun of these people (I'll make a few exceptions for Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew), even if deep down in places we don't talk about at parties, our gut reaction to them is the same as it is to the clowns on GA: thank Christ that's not me.

I suppose one can shrug off the popularity of shows like these (and the subject of today's "Reality Bites:" Hoarding: Buried Alive) by attributing it to the public's morbid fascination with the bizarre, but a big part of me believes more of us than would care to admit actually enjoy the suffering of others. And basic cable offers more than its share of schadenfreude to go around.

I initially assumed H: BA was an offshoot of Hoarders, until a cursory glance at my TV listings showed the former is TLC's (notice they never refer to themselves as "The Learning Channel" anymore) response to the latter, which airs on A&E. I can't describe my feelings that we have enough hoarders in the U.S. to warrant two separate reality shows, but they aren't good.

The episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive I watched ("No One Would Choose This" from season one) actually took place right up the road in Spring. Barbara Salzer is an oncology nurse, and a hoarder of trash, who has allowed her home to degenerate into utter filth following the departure of her three kids. The incongruity is not lost on the show's narrators.

Like most of the subjects of these shows, Barbara knows she has a problem -- she's still got shit in her refrigerator from before Ike, when the power went out for two weeks -- and laments the fact that her four-year-old granddaughter can't come to her house. Once again we're left to contemplate the capricious nature of mental illness, and be thankful it's (so far) left us alone.

Michelle, on the other hand, hoards "stuff" (clothes and fabric mostly; she has a degree in fashion design). She sleeps in a virtual cave in her parents' basement, hollowed out of piles of dresses and shoes. She and her mother barely even speak, and mom's irritation is understandable, to put it mildly.

Aw man, she even has VHS tapes. Switching to DVD would probably cut the space required down by 60%.

The first segment is all about emphasizing the subjects' hoarding problems, and it goes on well past the point of "Enough, we get it already." I mean, how long must the camera linger over the debris of these poor women's lives before people comprehend the problem? 20 minutes? 30? How has this show been on for three seasons?

Act II is the family intervention. Barbara's three kids come over to see the damage for themselves, and their reactions are predictable. I mean, how would you respond to finding their mother living in a virtual landfill (I'm assuming you're on good terms with your parents)? At least -- in this case -- they're not assholes about it.

Michelle's brothers are somewhat less accommodating, but still concerned. Their approach is more of the "tough love" variety. The theme is the same: We need to get help for these people or their living conditions are going to cause them physical damage to augment their psychological problems.

The final segment sees the arrival of professional help. And while both the women on the show I watched seemed eminently competent and understanding, they bear special mention just because of their awesome names: Barbara's is a clinical social worker named Constantina Boudouvas. Michelle's? Fugen Neziroglu. I'd be careful, she sounds like a Great Old One.

Neziroglu is good, though, even though when Michelle gets overwhelmed and says "cut," they don't actually cut. Way to build trust, TLC.

[An aside: When you pause a hoarding show on Netflix, all the screen captures to mark your place are of similarly piled debris, making it impossible to determine from context where in the program you are.]

In the end, steps are taken and progress is made, but there's obviously lots of work to be done. Michelle's mom is the very face of parenting: Her daughter is a lifelong project, with no end in sight. Barbara does a little better, but isn't out of the woods yet.

If I have any real problem with these shows, beyond the exploitative angle, it is that I'd like to see some follow-up. You can make the argument, "Hey, at least they're getting help," but I couldn't find any indication on TLC's page for the show that they ever revisit these people (or continue to pay for their therapy and counseling) well past the few weeks spent filming the episode to make sure they stay on track.

But that probably wouldn't be very good TV.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar