Hoarding, according to A&E’s docu-series Hoarders, is “a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to collect things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary.” Hoarders takes a look at those people who have so completely let themselves and their living standards go that their houses are glorified junkyards, each room its own little cesspool. This is the kind of show that seems, with each new episode, to top itself in terms of horror, disgust, and drama. So time may prove me wrong, but Augustine, the sole focus of the series’ second season premiere (up to now, every episode has been split between two subjects), has got to be the worst hoarder they’ve ever had.
A “God Bless This Mess” sign hanging from anyone else’s house might be a cutesy triviality, but hanging from Augustine’s, it’s like some sort of grand ironic gesture. According to a “hoarding psychologist,” Augustine is a Category 5 hoarder, and the inside of her house looks like it’s been ravaged by a Category 5 hurricane. The junk and clutter are so apocalyptic it’s hard to believe the house is capable of sustaining human life.
From portraits that are shown from the 1950s and 1960s, we can tell that Augustine was once very pretty, but that’s a thing of the past. The elaborate hairdos and make-up have eroded entirely, and now Augustine is old and in poor health. She has two children, now adults, Susan and Jason. Fourteen years ago, when Jason was 14 years old, their living environment was so unfit that Child Protective Services were forced to remove him from the house and place him in the grown-up Susan’s custody. Jason has grown up resentful and ashamed, claiming that he no longer has any emotional attachment to his mother, only a moral obligation to make sure that her house isn’t condemned by the local government.
Susan is a different story. She performs Herculean feats of effort to help her mother, but Augustine simply isn’t willing to accept them, and is convinced that Susan doesn’t love her. Augustine has allowed 8,000 pounds of garbage to accumulate inside her house — 8,000 pounds! — yet remains convinced that it couldn’t possibly be her fault. At one point, Susan says that she and Jason were raised by two different people: Susan by the loving, normal Augustine, and Jason by the vindictive, crazed Augustine.
The reunion of these three is rife with drama. Augustine remains convinced that the only reason Jason won’t come back home is because she doesn’t have air conditioning. Jason in turn is stunned to learn that the house has gotten even worse since he lived there; there hasn’t been any water for six years. Susan is anguished by her love for both of them, and what their relationship has been reduced to. By the time the cleaning crew arrives, you can’t imagine them clearing out the house in the three days allotted.
Of course they try, and the results are predictably horrifying. Augustine informs the crew that she lost a pair of dentures some years back, and if they find them, she’d like them back. The bathroom is a wasteland, and it isn’t until one saintly crew member reluctantly agrees to clean it that anyone dares venture inside. Most disturbing of all, the bodies of several dead cats are found amid the debris. Augustine is a self-proclaimed animal lover (she compares Jason leaving to the loss of one of her dogs), but how could that be when there are dead cats littering her house? She doesn’t even know how they got there. And, fair warning, we get a pretty clear picture of the dead cats, whose skeletons look fossilized. This is not a show to watch while eating dinner.
Hoarders focuses on inherently fascinating subject matter, and would be quite powerful if, say, someone like Errol Morris or Crumb-era Terry Zwigoff were behind the camera. As it is, the show suffers from typical TV ordinariness, with dramatic push-ins and blaring music cues underscoring every shocking beat, trying to manipulate us with a force that simply isn’t necessary.
Which is the same as it was with Hoarders’ first season. Fascinating, emotionally potent subjects diluted by a little too much TV magic.
Hoarders returns Monday, November 30, at 10:00 PM EST on A&E.