Who had any idea, when the phrase "reality television" first acquired a meaning, somewhere around 1999, that a little more than a decade later, one of its biggest subgenres would be garbage disposal?
Dating shows: Sure, that made sense. Hypersexualized living arrangements filmed by Orwellian surveillance cameras: That was bound to come too. Singing and dancing competitions: Yes, that was a natural. Dangerous jobs: Of course.
But not even the most zeitgeist-y of postmodern television futurists could possibly have predicted the hours and hours of programming – indeed whole channels – devoted to people who have too much useless stuff and to people who want useless stuff. Image after image, screen after screen of people weeping or cheering over mountains of mildewing clothes, broken toys, plastic Christmas ornaments, the bursting constipated intestines of the richest country on Earth and its indestructible worthless stuff roiling around in digestive agony on channel after channel? Nope, the phrase "another hoarding show" would have been rather mysterious in 1999.
Now, we have not only Hoarders (on A&E), Hoarding: Buried Alive (on TLC) and Confessions: Animal Hoarding (on Animal Planet) – all subgenres of the addiction/intervention genre rather than of the home-renovation genre – but also the slightly less troubling Clean Sweep (on TLC), Clean House (on Style) and Enough Already! (on OWN), programs that, under the pretense of aesthetic improvement, give advice on the blurry line between decor and mental illness.
Corollary to the junk-purging shows are the junk-collecting shows that undo all the good work. First, you watch the weeping little old lady on Hoarders being persuaded to give up the ceramic statuettes and NASCAR memorabilia in her condemned storage locker because it's worthless. Then, on the show immediately following – Auction Hunters (on Spike), Storage Wars (on A&E) or Storage Hunters (on TruTV) – you see the bargain hounds swoop in and rejoice in how much it's all going to earn them.
Surely all those experts carefully looking over early GI Joes and mint-condition dartboards are doing measurable damage to the confused psyche of a nation that really, deep down, knows that it has too much stuff. (And couldn't they just once address the complex question of why a vintage Coke machine is agreed to have any monetary value at all?)
Interestingly, a clothes-shopping show such as What Not to Wear neatly combines the futile cycle of bingeing and purging in every episode, first cleaning out a wardrobe stacked with old clothes and then restocking it with very similar clothes. The cleaning/restocking narrative is not like the familiar Hollywood cycle of sin and redemption, because there is no redemption, no salvation, no transcendence – just more stuff. It's hardly a narrative at all.
We should have seen junklust coming, perhaps, in 1979, when The Antiques Road Show first aired on British television. This was a dangerous drug for all the latent hoarders in the English-speaking world. It was the worst possible thing to happen to all the elderly shut-ins whose children can't persuade them to clear out their fire-hazard apartments: It was proof that they were going to be millionaires by holding on to those flammable stacks of Reader's Digests and all those creepy loose doll arms and heads. Storage Wars and its ilk – which also feature impressively erudite experts in the useless – are really just lowbrow versions of The Antiques Road Show.
The fantasy of having something valuable turn up in your garden shed is an understandable one. But what's the pleasure of watching those poor tortured hoarders drowning in their unsanitary rats' nests while their children shriek hoarsely at them? It's this: the same glimpse of recognition that we get from watching Intervention or My Strange Addiction or Freaky Eaters. It's that familiar, frustrating sense of trying to talk reason to an unreasonable person, and being ignored. We've all known someone who keeps doing something that's going to get him into really deep trouble, even after people warn him it will, and well, there you go, he got into trouble, just as we told him. There's a grim satisfaction in seeing all these addicts fail.
And fail they frequently do. The hoarding shows rarely depict any progress or glimmer of understanding among the afflicted: Their stuff is taken away and given to someone else and they don't understand why. On TV, this kind of compulsion looks like a totally untreatable disease.