‘Intervention’ Leads TV’s Fascination With Recovery

by | September 11, 2009 at 12:13 PM | Cover Story, TV News

A new season starts Sept. 14. (A&E)

A new season starts Sept. 14. (A&E)

After four years and 105 episodes, A&E’s “Intervention” enters its fifth September (the new season starts Monday, September 14), which is National Recovery Month, having chronicled 138 life-or-death confrontations between wrought-out family members and friends, and the hopelessly – or so it often seems – addicted loved ones they’re trying to save.

Among those who’ve had their interventions chronicled on the reality show, an astounding 112 are still sober – an impressive statistic, given the challenging dynamics of addiction recovery.

On September 12, that feat and other more personal accomplishments will be celebrated in New York when more than 10,000 individuals and families in recovery, as well treatment partners and advocates from all 50 states walk the Brooklyn Bridge at A&E’s second annual Recovery Rally. It’s part of the network’s multi-faceted Recovery Project, an effort intended to raise awareness that addiction is a treatable disease and recovery is possible.

Watch full episodes of ‘Intervention’.

More than 22 million Americans struggle with addiction to alcohol and drugs. Less than 10 percent get treatment.

“The Recovery Project continues to be an extremely important and rewarding initiative for A&E, which reinforces our commitment to positively impacting individuals and communities beyond our programming,” says A&E Network President and General Manager Bob DeBitetto.

Watch addicts talk about their interventions.

The event’s timing couldn’t be more meaningful or its message more bittersweet given the recent death of DJ AM (Adam Goldstein) at age 36 from what’s thought to be an overdose of painkillers and crack cocaine. Goldstein, who was public about his past battle with drug addiction, had created, executive produced and starred in “Gone Too Far, a gritty series for MTV spotlighting interventions for addicted teens. It was set to debut in October. MTV is still weighing the fate of that show.

If it does still air, it’s likely to be a ratings hit – and not just for macabre reasons. ‘Intervention’ is among the most popular on A&E’s schedule, drawing more than 2 million viewers per show. The network also addresses the topic on ‘The Cleaner,’ a scripted series starring Benjamin Bratt as a recovering addict who will do anything necessary, legal or otherwise, to get the substance-imperiled into treatment.

On VH1, Dr. Drew Pinsky presides over “Celebrity Rehab,” which has chronicled the real-life addiction struggles of well-knowns including Danny Baldwin, Bridgitte Nielsen and Chyna. Last year, “Celebrity Rehab” spun off a new show, “Sober House,” which showcases the transition from rehab to a less structured but still supervised living arrangement. And coming up from Dr. Drew, a series on sex addiction.

Why are viewers into this dark subject?

“I don’t know – I’m amazed, too,” says Jeff VanVonderen, one of the interventionists who appears regularly on “Intervention.” “I guess it’s intriguing and gripping, and it gives folks something to cheer for.”

Watch an episode about plastic surgery addiction.

For his part, Pinsky believes he knows what’s behind the phenomenon. “Addicts tend to be a source of drama because they live very chaotic lives,” he says. “Drama is not healthy people sitting around and engaging with each other. It’s sick people acting out.”

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But to Pinsky, co-author of the book “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America,” it goes even deeper than that. The same dynamics that make us like watching celebrity train wrecks – Anna Nicole, anyone? – also render the more anonymous meth heads and alcoholics on “Intervention” appealing, too.

In short, Pinsky believes our increasingly narcissistic society likes to see folks with childhood trauma even worse than our own built up… and then torn down in front of a camera.

Watch an episode about heroin and coke addiction.

“Americans seem very enamored with very sick people,” he notes. “We like to bask in the glow of their narcissism. We like to create sacrificial lambs and gather together in a primitive way, and then sacrifice them in a fit of envy.”

Of course, that’s a pretty dark view of this whole programming phenomenon.

Jonathan Prince, co-creator and exec producer of “The Cleaner,” thinks our obsession with addiction and recovery is a little healthier than that.

“People want to believe that they can clean their slate – that they can have a second chance,” he explains. “Most of us who watch these shows aren’t heroin addicts or alcoholics, but all of us are flawed, and when we look at these characters who are far worse off than us, we say to our selves that if they can be saved, maybe we can look in the mirror and see a chance for redemption, too.

Read an interview with VanDonderen.

Of course, “The Cleaner” is a scripted show with fictional characters, while “Intervention” is focused on real folks with really serious problems. Isn’t it exploitive to focus the commerce of television and advertising around a community of sick people who are suffering from a disease that Pinsky says is terminal if untreated?

Watch Jeff explain a successful intervention.

VanVonderen, who himself battled alcoholism before embarking on his current career, doesn’t think so.

“Any exposure the public has to this disease saves lives because denial is what surrounds this,” he says. “Any permission to talk about it and put it in the light of day is helpful. I get at least one email a week from someone saying something like, ‘I’ve watched your show faithfully for years while doing lines of cocaine. It helped me realize how much my life sucked, and I checked myself into rehab and got help. Thank you.’”

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With many of the interventionists themselves in recovery, the inherent “drama” is always accentuated by the chance of relapse. This dynamic has been pronounced of late – last year, VanVonderen had to take a break from “Intervention” after he reportedly experienced a resurgence of alcohol use.

And of course, there was DJ AM, who’s tragic death came just one month after he spoke confidently and authoritatively about his own recovery at the TV Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Even Pinksy, who has never personally battled alcohol or drug dependency, is wary.

“I have so much respect for this disease,” he notes. “Anything is possible.”

Watch the season premiere of ‘Intevention’ Monday, September 14, at 9 PM on A&E.