Welcome back to the Pop Culture Club, where every week we meet to discuss a TV show, movie, or DVD assigned the previous Thursday. Have you been a member the whole time? Do you print out each week’s discussion as well as all the comments and then set it aside because, who knows, maybe you’d want to give them out as gifts some day? Or perhaps you might sit down and edit them and take out all the spelling mistakes, and then make a mint selling them on eBay? Then this week’s TV assignment — A&E’s Hoarders — was just for you.

In the same way that Bravo discovered that their audience wanted to see people compete and excel in different fields (cooking, designing, selling real estate), A&E has found its own niche: making their audience feel comparatively good about their lives. First came Intervention, which, with its hit-rock-bottom subjects, made even its most sauced viewer think, “Sure, I’m watching this after my sixth beer, but hell, compared to these people, I’m a teetotaler.” Then came Obsessed; speaking for myself, it made me feel a lot less bothered by my own need to check the lock 10 times before I leave my apartment. Hell, put me up against the Obsessed subject of the week, and I’m Mr. Free and Easy. And now there’s Hoarders. If you sometime worry that your home is a bit cluttered, ask yourself this: Is there a clear path to my bathroom? In my backyard, do I have a bucket which contains a broken sewing machine encased in ice? If even the smallest of my 53 stacks of old TV Guides were to fall on me, would it crush me to death? No? All right then, go buy yourself another Beanie Baby and breathe easy.

As with Intervention and Obsessed, I was riveted by Hoarders. And, even though I started this column with a weak attempt at humor, this show quickly became no laughing matter. OCD and hoarding are usually easy go-to punchlines. Ha ha, look at him wash his hands for the 30th time! Ho ho, look at the hoarder, up to his neck in old For Better or For Worse compilations! But the producers of these shows shoot these things like horror movies. On Hoarders, there are slow pans of the subjects’ personal wreckage and incriminating close-ups of old dog bones, all accompanied by somber violin strings. Throw in a few anguished family members, and suddenly there’s nothing funny at all about these disorders.

When many shows claim to be “calling attention” to a disease, it’s really an excuse to exploit it. The Real World went through a long stretch where every season they’d move in a new housemate with a brand new problem — alcoholism, cutting, Lyme disease, etc. And yet these people were always crazy halfwits, so it was less about addressing a problem than equating it with immaturity. And for all of Dr. Drew’s somber PSAs, Celebrity Rehab is more of a point-and-gawk sideshow. Any harrowing moments on the VH1 show — and there are many — is tempered by America’s twisted love of watching has-beens. So it’s less, “Jeff Conaway has a serious problem that strikes millions of people” than, “Kenickie’s on drugs? Where’s Doody, sniffing glue with Putzie while Frenchy does whippits in the back of Greased Lightning?”

But to me, these A&E shows never slip into sensationalism. They’re just stark portrayals of fractured lives. This week’s stories were painful in that they made you realize how hoarders are so unable to see what is so obvious to everyone else: YOUR HOME IS FULL OF CRAP. Betty (pictured above) thought that the idea of herself as a hoarder was ridiculous: No, in her mind she was a “rescuer of things.” And while Tara seemed aware in theory that she needed to throw things away, in practice it was Keep your hands off my Peanuts collection!

And you could see how tortured they both are when anyone politely suggests they throw something away: Tara slipped into manic, hand-waggling monologues, while Betty became coldly defensive, refusing to budge and delivering her defenses with chillingly certain self-pity. She wouldn’t stop buying things at yard sales and Goodwill and pulling things out of the trash because she likes it, she says, and “I have very little in life to enjoy.” And, as we learned from her backstory (schizophrenic daughter and husband; he’s also an alcoholic), while she’s stubbornly pessimistic, that take is not indefensible. But when her daughters (one of whom has leukemia) demanded that she choose between her stuff and her family, and she stubbornly chose the stuff, it underlined just how destructive a malady this is. And unlike Intervention and Obsessed episodes, which tend to end with an 80% happy-ending rate, this Hoarders ended with two bummers. Tara and Betty barely got anything cleaned up, and you just know that their spare rooms will be chock full of teddy bears and broken vanity mirrors once again by the end of the month.

The show was so powerful that I’m not sure I should watch it again. How many piles of teddy bears and drawers full of expired coupons can we see before we become jaded? If it’s “Hoarder of the week!” then it may be easier to start thinking of it as a punch line.

What did you think of Hoarders? I’d like to hear where you think the line should be for putting people with mental problems on reality TV: is this show exploitative or eye-opening? And am I being too harsh on The Real World and Celebrity Rehab? Or do you think they’re superficial, and Hoarders is just as bad?

Next week’s assignment: We’re in September, the month when movies take a rest, and pass the baton of entertainment responsibility back to TV. The CW is first out of the gate with premieres, so let’s check out the relaunch of Melrose Place, which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. You’re now thinking one of two things: “I can’t wait!” or “I didn’t care about this show the first time around, and the intervening years have only made me more indifferent.” Well, I’m in the latter camp: I never saw an episode of the original. (Shhh, don’t tell my coworkers. That’s considered heresy around the halls of EW.) But that’s all the more reason for us to dip into it together. The old fans can tell us all the nuances we’re missing, while the newcomers can both currently and retroactively mock the old fans. Everybody wins!

All right, now on to talking Hoarders