I’m addicted to “Intervention.” More than once, I have been known to make the bad joke about needing an “Intervention” intervention. I wrapped this year’s Christmas presents while watching three back-to-back episodes. I don’t know why. I’d like to think it’s because I care so deeply about the people on the screen, that it’s good for me to see how far the disease of addiction can go if it isn’t treated, that somehow witnessing these most dramatic and cinematic stages of alcoholism is some kind of workout for my compassion muscles. And it’s true—sometimes the show makes me cry; sometimes I ache for those suffering people. And maybe it’s even pure empathy in those moments; maybe it is selfless caring for another person.
But I’m not kidding myself. I’m not a saint. The truth is, the show is entertaining. And admitting that makes me feel dirty. Despite my very real compassion, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the thought going through my head most of the time is, “Holy crap, these people are crazy.” As evolved and sensitive as I like to think I am, I’m a voyeur like everyone else. There’s nothing more compelling than watching someone’s life fall apart, then making bets on if they can pull it back together again. It’s the stuff great stories are made out of. The higher the stakes, the better the show.
It’s the whole train wreck thing, I suppose; the rubbernecker phenomenon. We love tragedy. We love wreckage. And maybe the show is extra compelling for people who are struggling with their own demons. For some, maybe it’s like watching people you know self-destruct, people you understand at a very deep level, people who resemble yourself. Even if you never got as bad as the girl huffing computer duster or the lady drinking mouthwash, you still know exactly how they’re feeling when they reach for that bottle—even after they’ve puked their guts out, even after they’ve OD’ed, even after going to jail, even after they’ve lost their partner and their kids and their job and their house, even though they promised for the millionth time that they’d stop.
That being said, I’ve never met anyone who said “Intervention” helped them get sober. I know many recovering alcoholics who have fond memories of curling up on the couch to watch the show while polishing off the night’s second bottle of wine. Never, in all those seasons of episodes, did anyone I know ever look at that stumbling drunk on the TV screen, then look at that drink in her hand, and make what seems like the obvious connection. If anything, the thought that ran through her mind as she watched the star’s life unravel was, “At least I’m not as bad as her.”
Is the show meant to save the alcoholic viewers suffering at home? Probably not. First and foremost, it’s a reality show. It wants advertising dollars and it wants ratings. It wants everyone—not just addicts and alcoholics—to share the same morbid fascination with downward spirals.
Most people probably have no idea how it feels to be a slave to substances, yet they still find “Intervention” compelling. There’s something that connects with everyone, or else the show wouldn’t still be on the air after so many years. Maybe most viewers don’t have the same disease as the sick people on TV, but part of them understands their obsession. Maybe we all know what it feels like to keep doing something even though we know it’s a bad idea; we know what it’s like to keep chasing something we know we’ll never get. We’ve all tasted that insanity, some of us more than others, and maybe there’s something cathartic about watching it inflated to epic proportions, something sublime about watching it pushed as far as it can go.
And maybe that’s what our obsession with train wrecks is really about; maybe the fascination is in the imagining that the mangled person could be us. We watch as their lives unravel, and we try to connect the dots—What if my parents got divorced like hers? What if I was molested like she was? What if I was bullied that badly as a kid? What if I had gotten into that accident like she did? Is it so impossible that it could be me on that TV, talking into the camera, spelling out my name for the viewers at home? Maybe when we slow down to look at the car crash on the side of the freeway, what we’re really looking for is if the victim has our face.
Amy Reed lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of the Young Adult novel Beautiful. Her next book, Clean, comes out in August 2011 and is about five teens’ experience in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.