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Once upon a time, Mondays were thing to be dreaded. They marked a return to work (or school), put an end to the fun of the weekend and, for most people, meant that drunken fun was over for another five days. Then, A&E gave us Intervention, Obsessed and (starting August 17th) Hoarders. Monday changed completely.

For those of you unfamiliar, Intervention is pretty much what the name implies: forty minutes of “documenting the addiction,” also known as “showing someone doing crazy shit,” followed by an intervention. The last five minutes always tell what happened after the intervention while some annoying song performed by “public domain Jayhawks” plays.

Obsessed chronicles people who have OCD, trichotillomania and panic anxiety; people usually exhibit a trick-or-treat bag of crazy. Anxiety disorders usually travel in packs, so it’s not unusual for one person to start off with anxiety, move on to hoarding things, and then develop agoraphobia and depression caused by their shame of said hoarding. The people on the show volunteer for cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves exposing people to the very things they fear in order for them to build up a tolerance. Inevitably, the people freak out, and “good tv” is made.

So, what’s another circus sideshow? This isn’t all about people getting drunk on mouthwash or pulling their hairs out one by one. These days, sideshows are a dime a dozen and A&E’s lineup would really have to amp up the crazy to compete with...well, just about anything on Vh1. (Sidebar: when did Vh-1 become Vh1? Did the hyphen contain all of the music videos?)

The real draws behind A&E’s lineup are the people behind the stories. “Lady is an alcoholic” isn’t nearly as interesting as “lady is the perfect PTA mom who snaps, can’t handle it, and becomes an alcoholic.” It’s interesting because, on some level, we can see ourselves or our friends. We see the impact that unattainable expectations of perfection have on women. The aforementioned alcoholic lady says “I’m beautiful and happy, I’m beautiful and happy!” everytime she leaves the house. The drunk guy next door drinks because he watched his father figure die in Afghanistan. The anorexic girl at school is punishing herself because she’s reliving guilt she feels about being molested. I’m not saying that having “issues” makes it OK to sell your kid for crack. I’m saying that the story of addiction is much more interesting when you can look at a crackhead and see somebody’s sister. Intervention makes the addicts human rather than just a sideshow.  

Most of the people on Obsessed are portraits of what can happen to any of us if blindsided by the unforeseen. The sky over all of our heads is filled with pianos. Every second of every day, your phone could ring and you could be notified of someone’s death. You could be permanently disabled every time you get in a car. North Korea could finally decide to nuke us.

What happens when one of those sky-pianos falls on someone who is blindsided or a little short on coping mechanisms? They develop little habits. They check locks. They tap things three times. While they know in their rational minds that tapping things isn’t going to stop the sky-pianos, something in them says “you’d better tap this, just in case.” While most of us can avoid becoming a crackhead by just not doing crack, the “oh my God, I can’t control life and that scares the crap out of me” misfire in your brain could happen any time. We watch Obsessed because we can see our past selves, our possible future selves. If nothing else, we can understand why the people on the show do what they do. As hard as it is to feel empathy for someone who could sell her own kid for crack, it’s that easy to feel empathy for the lady who is psychotic about baby-proofing her house after losing a child to SIDS.  

By paying attention to people we don’t know, people on tv, we can better understand the people we DO know. Watching other people is a huge part of how we learn, even if it’s usually along the lines of “do we pay at the table, or go to the cash register?” Watching people around us connects us. It makes us more empathetic. It keeps us human.



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