Is it chill to watch real addicts OD’ing the same way you watch Real Housewives throw all-white parties? Lizzi Sandell questions whether Intervention is a (literal) lifesaver, or a masterpiece of exploitation.
“I like hugs. Do you like old friends? Do you like old friends? And we love our family because one person said, ‘judicial rights.’ I like showers. Sit down, shut up, be quiet. Everyone judges.” 19-year old Sierra is in the midst of a meth-induced psychosis. She is the subject of Intervention, episode 205. Despite growing up in a sober-living community, she is drug-addled; in fact, she has completely lost her mind. As the intertitles keep reminding us: she does not know she is about to be part of an intervention. She doesn’t, frankly, know much about anything at all. “Today,” she declares, “is ‘Feed a Juggalo Day’ at Red Lobster.”
It’s not difficult to see why some people have had a problem with this show—one in which addicts are blindsided by their relatives on camera in order to persuade them to go into treatment—nor is it all that difficult to work out how it can be appealing. It is drama distilled. It is reality TV “on crack,” and recently I have been watching it excessively. It is one of many reality TV shows that I’ve become, for want of a better word, addicted to, except this show is considerably more morbid in content than, say, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. After devouring maybe 60 episodes in a fairly short period of time (but only in 3-episode periods, because anything more than that is devastating), I started to wonder if I was being vampiric. What exactly am I watching this for? The eventual redemption, or the gory bit before?
As some critics have pointed out, the extent to which the severely addicted can consent to anything—even the vague, “documentary about addiction”-pitch proposed to them by the producers at A&E—is minimal. The aforementioned Sierra, in particular, seems like a less-than-ideal candidate for signing release forms. She, like all of the subjects of the show, has agreed to be filmed; this fact is declared at the beginning of each episode in the interest of a sort of half-truth journalistic integrity. But already, there is some discrepancy between what Sierra thinks is happening, and what we, the audience, and everyone else around her knows to be true. The addicts unknowingly enter into a Faustian pact in which their footage is willfully misappropriated—all in the interest of salvation.
This is hardly the first time IRL addicts have appeared onscreen. Critically-acclaimed documentaries like Dope Sick Love (2005) and Glawogger’s Megacities (1998) also document addiction-in-action, with the latter filmmaker buying his subject heroin in order to get the perfect shot of him shooting up. (He almost overdoses.) In Dope Sick Love two wayward addict couples roam the streets of New York, returning stolen items for drug-money and exhibiting the gritty complexity of the sort of chemical, codependent romances that so often become huge obstacles to the main aim of Intervention. These films, and plenty of others, are made without the justifying promise of an all-expenses-paid, 3-month rehab stint. Perhaps it is actually the militantly-normative angle of Intervention that, rather than justifying it, makes it feel gross.
The show lives and dies on the moral principle that the end justifies the means: bear us your soul—your humiliation, your heartbreak, your crimes, both legal and moral—and we will reward you with a new life, a reintroduction into the world of the living. When I consider the way I watch the show (in my pajamas, coffee-drunk-and-unproductive in the middle of the day, as if to reassure myself of my own life choices), I am guilty of frequently visiting the lovingly-curated Intervention Directory, to see how the addicts turned out. So far, 27 post-episode deaths are listed, but I think that can be described as an occupational hazard. Many of the recovering addicts’ social media details are shared on the Directory’s forums too, and I may or may not have perused them, as if to add invasive insult to injury.
I am also guilty of preferring the episodes that focus on women. Is it because I can better relate to them, as a female, or because such a public display of female destruction feels all the more perverse? The extra dimensions of “daddy issues,” vulturous older male friends, and the almost unanimous adoption of sex work as a survival tool only adds to the sad drama. It is through these ruined women that the show fully achieves its body-horror potential. Emaciated female figures with track marks, unexplained bruises, and the unrelenting guilt of children growing up elsewhere seem to exactly embody the show’s primary preoccupation: the taboo of failed personhood.
Intervention is aggressive in its pursuit of its aim. When watched en masse, it is formulaic to the point of being monotonous. The show begins, always, with talking-head soundbites from family and friends. They are almost always identical: “From the moment they wake up, all they can think about is their next fix”; “I want the old Courtney back”; “If she keeps doing this, she will die”; “I keep waiting for that call”; “I don’t want to bury my kid,” and so on. This is accompanied by those now-infamous, urgent, layered Intervention chimes. Then, the addict is painted as “normal” for one creepy moment—shown interacting with their children or playing the guitar—before this impression is swiftly torn down. The extent of the addiction is then described by more talking heads and by the addict themselves, in an AA-style introduction: “I’m Allison, and I’m addicted to inhalants… it’s like I’m walking on shunshine.”
As baby pictures slide across the screen, the addict’s family history is laid out in detail. This too, is sadly formulaic: a potent cocktail of child abuse, sexual assault, addict parents, neglect, overachievers + failure, ill-fated marriages, and, underpinning it all, that ultimate gateway drug: low self esteem. If “addictive personalities” exist, these are painfully pronounced iterations of them; the first taste of their preferred substance seems to alleviate all semblance of the pain caused by upbringings too traumatizing to fathom. We then witness the day-to-day fallout of nature-conspiring-with-nurture through a series of humiliating close-ups, until the tearful finale, which involves letter-reading, crying, and sometimes some running around (they choose who will chase the addict beforehand). The bit where they actually get clean is brushed over as the credits roll.
But let’s face it, Intervention doesn’t actually kill anyone. It only exhibits potential deaths in slow motion in the interest of preventing them. And it has actually saved people’s lives; the reason people submit their loved ones for the show, presumably, is because they cannot afford high-quality, long-term treatment on their own. But more than that, the public, collective nature of the filming process holds everyone involved as an accountable unit. Family members, ranging from plainly imperfect, to guilt-ridden enablers, to the relational equivalent of ominous swamp-creatures, are forced to come to terms with their part in the addict’s demise. Very often, A&E puts the affected family members in Betty Ford clinics for therapy, because, as the show’s platitude goes, they are all sick from the same addiction.
Intervention is a hugely successful show by most measures. It has run for 17 seasons since 2005, and won an Emmy in 2009 for Outstanding Reality Program. It is sanctioned both by audience and industry, and despite all my attempts to moralise and theorize, I still can’t bring myself to feel too bad about watching it. This may be desensitization, but it just doesn’t seem that out of step with our approach to reality television, or visual culture, more generally. We watch The Biggest Losers sweat and starve, and relish the more blatantly mismatched and fraudulent pairings in 90 Day Fiancé. Despite Intervention’s glaring consent issues, emotions—even painful ones—are considered ripe for the purpose of entertainment. Perhaps anything is permissible, as long as it makes us feel something.
Lizzi Sandell is a writer and editor who lives between London and New York.