During his second season, filmed just a few months after his first season aired, Wade broke down. “I was like, ‘Fuck you, man. You know what I did in Brazil. You know I was honorable. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t hurt anybody. Fuck you for making an ass out of me. I’m out of here.’ ” The threat to quit, he says, wasn’t serious.
Later, Wade will tell me, “I had a good coaching career, and for that to be pissed away like that [snaps fingers] because they wanted their ratings to be good was not fair.” He was fired from his coaching job at Southwest Baptist University for essentially disappearing for six weeks to be on the show, which he said was because producers threatened to sue him, invoking the contract’s $5 million penalty, if he revealed where he was really going. When prospective Survivor cast members sign the 32-page contract and nine-page rule book, initialing each page, they agree to be inflicted with “severe mental stress,” allow the network to register websites using their name, “not defame, disparage or cast in an unfavorable light” CBS or Mark Burnett Productions and never write a book about their experiences. They also agree to the fact that the television program may reveal things “of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature that may be factual and/or fictional” and that may expose them to “public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation.”
It is a fairly typical contract. “Few contestants read their contracts or have a lawyer read it,” Marc Marcuse says. “You’re going to be on fucking TV. It could say, ‘Give me your firstborn child,’ and they’d sign it. They want fame.” Marcuse would know: After appearing on NBC’s Average Joe he started working as a booking agent for reality-TV stars. Is it possible to make an informed decision about the consequences of page after page of legalese—especially if you’re in a crisis or mentally ill? “No, which is why I handed my contract to a lawyer, and my lawyer said, ‘I would never sign this contract,’ ” Marcuse says. “And I did anyway.”
At first Randy Senna rejected Hoarders because he didn’t like the contract Seattle-based Screaming Flea Productions wanted him to sign. His countercontract detailed the “moving services” that would be performed and asked, among other things, for the production company to essentially agree to its own terms and allow its crew to be filmed. Producers did not agree, and the episode was called off.
But Matt Paxton persuaded him to do it anyway.
Paxton is 35; he looks older on TV but younger in person. He sometimes swears, mentions the importance of his religious faith but doesn’t get specific, rejects friendships with people who don’t support gay marriage and lives in Virginia. In his 20s Paxton went from working as a Federal Reserve analyst to getting beaten up by a bookie after becoming addicted to gambling. In 2008 he was ready to close his business, Clutter Cleaner, which emptied out foreclosed houses and, occasionally, the homes of hoarders, because he could no longer afford rent and his wife was pregnant. Paxton had to beg Verizon not to cut off his cell phone service. The producers of Hoarders were looking for messy houses to clean and were referred to Paxton. A week later he was on location, being filmed cleaning a house in Alabama. The show had found one of its go-to stars. His lack of a filter and his humor make him the person most willing to call the show’s hoarders on their shit. Now, because he is on television, he can pay his rent but cannot go to the grocery store during the middle of the day. And recently a stranger rang his doorbell to see if he was there, terrifying his wife.
About six weeks before filming, Paxton visited Senna, spending a 10-hour day touring the space and talking to him over lunch. Senna was ambivalent. He and Paxton talked four or five times a day for several weeks. Paxton persuaded him to say yes, to let people into his maze of artifacts, all of which mean something to Senna. It wasn’t an easy decision. Senna likes control, but being on Hoarders means giving that up.
Ben Wade’s anger toward Survivor appears and fades like the snow tumbling through the well-spaced evergreens that line the drive to the small church where he preaches. Anger has become recognition, resignation or both. “I’m not upset about it at all. In fact, I’m really glad they did it—it was just really hard to live with,” he says.
“My friends were doubting me. They were like, ‘Maybe he hasn’t done anything. Maybe he can’t play the trumpet like he says he can. Maybe he is a fucking liar that sat on a beach and pretended like he kayaked the Amazon but didn’t.’ ”
“That’s the power of editing,” I say. Editors have the challenging task of turning hours of boring film into compelling entertainment by assembling footage. And by selecting what to include and then juxtaposing those images, they have a lot of power. On the show, the sequence in which Wade tells the story of being kidnapped and tortured before escaping from indigenous people was edited for time (of course), drama (music enhanced his story) and humiliation (his tribe mates were shown looking bored and, in private interviews filmed later but spliced in, doubting his story). As pressure to produce attention- and ratings-grabbing series increases, producers and editors have privately complained to me that networks sometimes demand more, leading some editors to construct sentences from fragments—essentially allowing a show to write its own script and cast members to complain later of misrepresentation (information that fans salivate over because it adds an extra dimension to the reality they’ve come to know).
Still, producers have only so much footage to work with, and Marcuse tells me, “I’ve known well over 1,000 reality people over the course of the years I’ve been doing this, and I represent more than 400. I can count on one hand the people for whom it was the editing. Is it the editing, or is it really that they’re not self-aware?”
Maybe both. “I did it to myself too,” Wade says. “I was so psyched to go into the game that I put on this whole facade, like I am the man, I am the coach. And that is a part of my personality I have to fight.”
Producer Cowan says he tells cast members that “cameras and shows are kindest to those who are just letting themselves be themselves. If you try to control the impression of your personality or who you are, what your image is, in the end you’re going to be unhappy. Because the camera doesn’t get to see all the nuances in your head. It sees only your actions.”
Wade never locks the door to his house, which, like his personality, is an eclectic, complicated mix. Fragments of Survivor are everywhere: on the bar, shot glasses from his two seasons; cast photos; a newspaper article about a charity event appearance, framed and leaning against the wall of the guest bedroom I stayed in. (Yes, I called him a “liarface idiot douche” in public and yes, he still invited me to be his houseguest.) An alcove off the dining room overlooks Susanville, California, where the high desert and mountains meet, and in front of the windows, on a table, sit a flatscreen, a computer keyboard and a musical keyboard. It’s here that Wade composes, sometimes not moving for 12 hours, not even to take a bathroom break. He rents out his basement to four soccer players, who interact with him as though he were their older brother, borrowing his clothes and jokingly calling him an asshole.
Everyone in town who knows Wade seems to adore him, from his friends to the little kids who seek his autograph (he signs “Dragon Slayer”) to the senior citizens who call him “maestro” in the lobby of the church where the pews are filled with hundreds of residents to hear a Susanville Symphony Society concert. There, a back room is packed with people and sound. More than 50 musicians—some teenagers, others professionals from Reno; some paid, others volunteers—fall quiet to listen to Wade, their conductor, who, in 2003, two years after coming to Susanville and transforming the women’s soccer program at the community college into a success, merged local quintets and became the group’s reluctant, and eventually professionally trained, conductor and composer.
Sometime after Survivor, while he was wading in the shallow pool of postfame fame-seeking that so many attention-drenched reality-TV show cast members dive into—he was offered his own dating series similar to The Bachelor—Wade moved back to Susanville so he wouldn’t become a “whoremonger.” Wade later says, “I’m not fuckin’ faking everybody. I must really care. I’m not narcissistic. I could fool a couple of people, but I’m certainly not going to fool an entire town.” For all the hell television put him through by exploiting his personality, his frustration is nearly always followed by appreciation: for the opportunities it opened up, for the experiences and for the personal growth. “Without question, the producers take advantage of you. It’s what you sign up for,” he says. “You’ve got to flip the coin and say, ‘Thank you, guys, for doing this, for honoring me with your edit, because you made me into an iconic figure for that season.’ I guess you gotta take the good with the bad.”
On a Saturday in late March, the bad is about to start for Randy Senna. Day laborers Paxton hired are moving pinball machines from the storage space above Randyland to a truck, ready to be transported to a new location. Almost every episode of Hoarders includes a psychologist who helps the hoarder process the emotions that arise from the crew’s work, and therapist Suzanne Chabaud has noticed boxes of videocassettes.
“If you outlive the point at which your things will become valuable, what happens?” she asks Senna in her light New Orleans drawl, her head tilted back to look up at him through her glasses. “You’re gone, and the VHS will still be thrown into the trash.”
As Pat Barnes, the episode’s producer, looks at a handheld monitor that allows her to instantly switch between the two camera shots, Senna says, “The legend of Randy will continue forever, and those who will have the treasures of the Randy archives will thank their lucky stars that I saved all these treasures.” The workers move Senna’s original baby carriage, along with old Pepsi cups, fading and cracked and still in plastic bags.
There are many types of reality shows, from competitions to fly-on-the-wall documentary series, but they all share DNA from MTV’s The Real World. Followed by an entourage of camera operators, sound engineers and producers, cast members are placed in atypical, high-stress environments—whether a house or a beach on which they play a game for $1 million—and asked constantly to explain and justify their behavior in on-camera interviews. Some shows are carefully orchestrated, with producers setting up artificial situations and then filming what happens, but the very best ones, such as Discovery’s Deadliest Catch or Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, merely observe real life.
Hoarders is somewhere in between, because the intervention wouldn’t have happened without the show. Cameras aren’t always on, and producers let the therapist and organizer do their work. Barnes frequently checks in with Paxton about what he plans to do next. Sometimes filming interrupts work, for a pull-aside conversation with Paxton, Chabaud or Senna, or for a scene like the one now being filmed, in which they talk to Senna about his hoarding. In the same cheery tone, Senna repeats the themes of his collection’s contribution to humanity.
“You’re using objects. Other people might use words,” Chabaud says.