The Junkie Show

A&E’s creepy ‘Intervention’ is truly addictive reality television.

By Steve Burgess 19 Apr 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Names sometimes outlive their original meanings. Vancouver’s NBA team moved to Memphis, and now the noble grizzly bear is identified with the state capital of Tennessee. Likewise, historians unaware that the former New Orleans NBA franchise was relocated to Salt Lake City will ponder the oxymoron that is the Utah Jazz.

It happens in TV Land too. Just look at A&E. Arts & Entertainment reflected the American cable channel’s original highbrow mandate, but times have changed. Crime shows and increasingly lowbrow reality programming are the outlet’s new bread and butter. Shows like Growing up Gotti, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and a forthcoming series on the daredevil Robby Knievel seem predicated on finding the most obnoxious protagonists possible and then letting us in on their richly moronic lives.

Now A&E has come up with a new and controversial twist on their reality formula. Intervention is getting lots of heat and buzz from viewers and critics who debate whether its portrayal of the desperately dysfunctional falls into the category of insightful documentary or cheesy exploitation. It’s a four-beer argument at the very least.

Clean up or else

Intervention follows addicts of various stripes—crackheads, pill-poppers, gamblers, a young woman who compulsively cuts herself—through lives that sometimes show a deceptive outward normality but are always revealed to be private train wrecks. These people believe they are being chronicled for a series on addiction, and they are. But partway through each episode the unsuspecting subject will be ambushed by family and friends led by a professional counselor—an “intervention.” They are offered a chance to clean up, immediately, at a treatment facility. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 worth of Vicodin or smack. They are frequently threatened with withdrawal of family support should they refuse.

Some fight, most go meekly with expressions of relief. Follow-ups indicate whether the subject has stayed clean or relapsed.

Central to the show’s pitch is the nature of the addicts themselves, virtually all of them middle-class folks. A&E knows that standard junkie tales will inspire yawns from the Biography-watching crowd. They need victims who might inspire a chilling moment of recognition.

Humiliation on display

Most of the show is devoted to the addictive activity itself. Two subjects per week are followed through their routine, and we furtively watch the smoking, shooting, cutting, or popping proceed with abandon. There’s plenty to see. Razor blades drawing designs in bleeding flesh, rocks being lit, pills being stolen from terminally-ill relatives. It’s a rich tapestry.

Whether Pollyanna or pessimist, you will find material here to support your view of human nature. Stories of triumph are served up alongside a healthy dose of humiliation and ultimate failure. Addicts come in so many varieties that almost all they have in common is the urge and the rationalization. Lots of both on offer here.

The interventions themselves can be as disturbing as the rest of it. When the compulsive cutter faces her family we see her battling fruitlessly to shatter the smug, unchanging grin of her father, a man always ready with a Christian platitude and never with a sincere human response. It’s all you can do to keep from punching the screen.

Tawdry. In a good way?

You can pity them, sympathize with them, and if like me you have battled addictions of your own, empathize with them. But addicts are generally the whiniest, saddest, most annoying and least trustworthy people on earth. Intervention presents its audience with the question: is watching them squirm edifying or exploitative?

Can’t it be both? It’s unlikely that A&E conceived of this exercise in morbid voyeurism as a public service. Watching junkies scramble for crack might simply be a variation on the now-proven TV formula of making swimsuit models eat bugs. But the network’s intentions notwithstanding, Intervention offers illuminating moments. Hey, if a show like America’s Top Model can show you things about human nature (and I say it can), Intervention’s window on addictive human behavior must surely offer lessons.

At the very least it records an unflinching picture of everyday addiction. Even a gritty tale like Danny Boyle’s movie Trainspotting served to glorify its stylishly trashed protagonists. Intervention is too tawdry for that. Perhaps if just one addict is scared straight at the prospect of having a circle of relatives expressing their concerns with bad self-composed poetry, Intervention will have done its job.

To find out when the next episode of Intervention airs, go here.

Steve Burgess reviews television, and reality, on a regular basis for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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