BY: David Bauder
NEW YORK – From the mixture of hurt, anger and embarrassment on his face, Gordon seems like one of the last people who would want to open his life to cameras for a reality television show.
His is one of four stories featured in back-to-back episodes of A&E’s feel-creepy ‘Hoarders,’ which opens its third season Monday at 9 p.m. EDT. It’s the network’s most popular series among young viewers, something of a surprise given that it’s about emotionally ill people living amid mounds of garbage.
Gordon (A&E doesn’t fully identify people who get treatment through their show) lives in a filthy home with his wife and two adult children. There’s no running water. The piles of trash are so deep that his wife got trapped in one and needed help to be extricated.
Clearly, it couldn’t have been the direction he had envisioned his life taking. His frustration and embarrassment with his life help explain why he lashed out at a mental health professional who prodded his wife to throw things in the trash and at camera operators recording the scene.
“I’d rather die here than let anyone in the front door,” he said.
Yet his tragic life was exposed for all to see. As with many profiled on ‘Hoarders,’ being featured on television is a necessary bargain: The production company pays for counseling and aftercare that they would not have been able to afford otherwise.
“He did it because it was the only option left,” said Jodi Flynn, executive producer of the series for the Seattle-based Screaming Flea Productions. “They were going to condemn the house if he didn’t do something.”
‘Hoarders’ was a hit from the start at A&E, and last winter’s second season saw an audience 10 percent higher than the first, the Nielsen Co. said. It averaged 2.3 million viewers an episode and, in the truest mark of success for a nonfiction cable show, produced imitators such as TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive‘ and ‘Confessions: Animal Hoarding,’ on Animal Planet.
Screaming Flea was first hired by A&E to do a makeover series focusing on a company that cleans up after hoarders. Although ‘Dirty Deeds’ didn’t work, the network was interested in delving deeper into the hoarding disorder and the current documentary-style series was born.
Disturbing as they are, there are only so many pictures of trash piles you can take. Producers look for compelling family stories and track how efforts to treat the hoarders succeed.
In one of the new season’s stories, a woman who has been estranged from her hoarding mother for 20 years returns to help her, acting on a promise made to her father before he died. Adella is a challenge; sent to see one psychiatrist, she rooted through his receptionist’s garbage can for things to bring home.
The daughter can’t hold back tears when she talks about her mother.
“She chose the trash over my dad,” Beverly, the daughter, said. “She chose the trash over me and my sister. She chose the trash over our children. She built a wall of trash to keep us all out.”
Like popular cable series about pawnbrokers, cupcake bakers, Alaskan fishermen and ice road truckers, ‘Hoarders’ offers viewers an intimate look into a world they probably wouldn’t know. Unlike those shows, it’s a sad, sometimes horrifying world. If you find something funny, it’s hard not to feel guilty about it.
Some of the participants are motivated by a desire to help others beyond themselves, said Rob Sharenow, senior vice president of alternative programming at A&E. Hoarding is a more widespread disorder than many people realize and the series “brings it out of the closet,” he said.
“The show really touches on the core of human drama,” he said. “These are highly emotional, high stakes stories of people trying to resolve their most critical issues. It isn’t light entertainment by any means, but it’s vital entertainment. People will feel a visceral connection to the characters, and I do think they show the struggles of the characters.”
Besides a variety in families, there is a variety in things that are hoarded. One of the new shows features a colorful character who collects a variety of dolls and artwork that he finds is much less valuable than he thought. Flynn’s favorite show remains one from the first season with a woman who hoarded food.
And for some people living in homes with no plumbing, well, you don’t want to know what they hoard.
For the first season, producers relied on a network of hoarding experts to find stories for them. Now they get plenty of suggestions from people living through the problem — mostly family, Flynn the executive producer said. Hoarders rarely volunteer themselves.
For some hoarders, the treatment takes. For others, it doesn’t. Many remain a work in progress.
“The show does not impose a fake ending on these things,” Sharenow said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.