Last summer, a friend e-mailed me about an upcoming reality series that spied on junkies who’d hit rock bottom. The idea sounded extreme and exploitative: What kind of scumbag would enjoy watching some wretched soul prodding his pasty skin for a good vein or mopping up seepage from her perforated septum? But television weakens our defenses and accelerates the speed at which we grow accustomed to new extremes; things that might have taken a generation to become acceptable now take just a season or two. In the last year, so many other shows have chipped away at my righteous indignation (e.g., Cold Turkey, the show that locked smokers in a house, or plastic-surgery extravaganza The Swan) that Intervention doesn’t feel the least bit shocking.
Maybe that’s because Intervention sometimes resembles a more earnest, old-school doc, albeit one with vérité longueurs edited out in favor of reality era compression. In each hour-long episode, camera crews slip inside the claustrophobic universes of two individuals who have volunteered to appear in a program about addiction. Twenty-seven-year-old Alyson, a former honor student, lurks around her parents’ house stealing pills from her dying dad—when she’s not on a crack spree, that is. Alyson is plaintive (“Everything I do is gonna hurt today if I don’t take that morphine”) but malevolent, like she’s auditioning for a role in Sid and Nancy. Her voracious presence throws the whole family out of whack. An even more monstrously needy figure is Gabe, an ex-prodigy whose gambling problem has bankrupted his parents. Gabe speaks in a high-pitched screech; he wields it like a weapon, battering his exhausted parents with his misery. “It’s my view that when you decide to have kids, you’re responsible for them their entire lives,” he rants. These segments with Alyson and Gabe expose the horrible truth of this statement, framing the family as an invisible jail in which both parents and children are forever entrapped.
This close-up view of agitated family dynamics differentiates Intervention from those classic “dangers of drugs” segments on 20/20. That and the gimmicky twist producers have introduced for the reality TV era: Family, friends, and an intervention specialist hijack the participant at the end of each episode, strong-arming him or her into a treatment program. But then this show—which so eagerly captures people at their lowest ebb—halts abruptly, either unable or unwilling to find entertainment in the dreary work of forging a new life. Intervention drops its addicts at the door, leaving them to recover alone.