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Intervention: The Real Reality TV?

Intervention0703I can just imagine the show pitch: "Reality TV is hot, so let's find some hardcore addicts and trick them into getting interventions from their loved ones so they can go to rehab. But first, we'll show 45 heartbreaking minutes of their self-destruction. It'll be a ratings boom!"

Well, it worked. A&E's "Intervention" is the network's highest rated show, and now, in its fifth season, it's been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. The question is, why do we tune in to so much pain and heartbreak week after week? Does "Intervention" work?

Perhaps it's the "can't look away from the train wreck" mentality. On a recent episode, a young woman named Allison, once a prolific musician and pre-med student, was presented as a ghost of her former self, huffing aerosol keyboard duster until her eyes were as big as plates and she was barely coherent. She would go through ten cans of the duster each and every day.

She's become a YouTube sensation, of course. People have made music videos to the song "Walking On Sunshine," due to her frantic description of how huffing made her feel. Internet bulletin boards are full of jokes about her. No one seems to remember that she had been dealing with childhood molestation and a nightmarish botched trial, and that she eventually did go to rehab, and was clean as of the airing of the episode. To many, she was just another hilariously tweaked out junkie.

Is this what "Intervention" strives to be? I admit to watching Allison with astonishment the first time, but it rapidly grew into horror as the show progressed. Many of the episodes show the incredibly intricate web of manipulation of the addict's family and friends, and it's easy to look at the addict with disdain at that point. The show does well in that it balances the manipulation with gritty footage of the despair and hopelessness in addiction that drives the addict to such behavior.

I don't feel that the producers of the show are responsible if watchers want to make a viral video of one of the participants rather than look around and see if they or anyone they know needs help. "Intervention" is raw material, no commentary, no voice-over, just the story as it unfolds, with stark black placards giving some unsaid details. It is an hour of unshed tears, uncontrollable rage and pain, and fragile, gossamer threads of hope. We are free to take from it what we choose.

The people profiled aren't here for our entertainment, they are here to educate us. This is why I am so loathe to call the show part of "reality TV." To put this experiment in the same category as "The Hills"  makes me sick inside. This is Real TV, as in "you really should look in a mirror, look around yourself, and see what's going on. And if you don't have to deal with this in your life? You should really be grateful."

When I went to rehab, I was so far gone that I didn't need an intervention, I just needed a ride from the hospital. There, we watched this show religiously every week. Sometimes we would comment the whole time (after all, every addict is THE expert on addiction,) and sometimes we would watch in complete silence. People often would quietly leave the room at difficult or graphic parts. We represented the step after the show ended, when the real work began. Like the show, some of us would make it, and some of us wouldn't.

So am I grateful for "Intervention?" You're damn right I am. It's not easy to watch, and sure, sometimes it's easier to make a video-mashup than think about the damage addicts do to themselves and the people around them. But people are watching, and learning, and hopefully if addiction is part of their lives, they will be able to take from the show what I feel is the real message. That there is hope.

And one last thing. The last note they show is the date on which the person profiled became sober. Mine is February 16, 2008.

« Project Runway Open Thread: The Return To MamaPop, Vol. 1 | Pop Culture Main | An Interview with Debbie Phelps, Mother of Michael »

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