Anyone curious about where shows like My Extreme Addiction and Hoarders rose from need only peek at the still-steaming pile of ashes now known as Intervention, an Emmy-winning, reality TV staple that ended its eight-year run on Thursday night. As its credits proudly note toward the final moments of the last episode, a whopping 243 interventions were performed over the show’s duration with 156 individuals staying sober to this day. Not only that, but the show ebbed into the cultural conscience so that it could easily be parodied and referenced as easily as “GTL,” “You’re fired,” or any other reality-TV cliché that might make you cringe due to its datedness.
Intervention is a tricky nut to crack when viewing it in the reality spectrum. There is something inherently likable about the show’s built-in mission to seek sobriety for troubled individuals. Yet, as many critics have pointed out over the years, the fact that real, human addiction is heavily edited and set to heart-pounding music for audiences to consume alongside Duck Dynasty and commercials for better mops is troublesome. Addiction’s inherent otherness to a more sober person—alongside the fact that it’s incredibly real and terrifying and misunderstood—is what makes the show so instantly relatable and viewable. Most people know someone who has struggled with addiction, even peripherally, and it can be fascinating to see behind closed doors to what the day-to-day of a bulimic or alcoholic’s life looks like. Though the symptoms and fallout might be present in a person’s public life, their private struggle is something that had yet to be documented for millions of viewers before Intervention came along. And the show made a name for itself showcasing firsthand views of what a shattering disarray an addict’s life can really become: relentless pursuit of a high, run-down homes and, at times, disintegrating bodies.
It can be a horror show filled with visuals that are hard to shake, whether it’s needles piercing flesh or hot tears pouring down the faces of heartsick loved ones. But more than all of that, it’s riveting, unique television—and that’s why the show has sustained a relative momentum for so many years. The circle of addiction has expanded past the obvious list of drugs and alcohol to include compulsive shopping and exercise, food and sex addiction, and a memorable episode involving one woman’s bizarre addiction to huffing dust remover. As the show’s fanbase steadily expanded, it set the stage for the glut of followups that feature bizarre addictions as sideshows that further allow viewers to gawk at the strangeness of humankind around us. Add to this that many of the participants in Intervention are visibly intoxicated for much of the filming and you have the perfect cultural cocktail involving controversy and watchability. No one should be surprised that a show like Intervention has remained a draw and if they are, they’ve never rubbernecked in their car or eavesdropped on a nearby conversation.
In spite of all that moralistic finger wagging, there’s subtle humanity about Intervention’s final episode, which focuses on a thirty-something man named Eric who struggles with a voracious heroin addiction. Like all Intervention subjects, he has chosen to participate because he has been told that crew is filming a documentary about addiction—not that his family and friends have brought a well-known reality show to follow him, film him while high, and ambush him with an intervention in hopes that he seeks treatment.
We quickly learn Eric’s backstory and it reads like so many others from the hundreds that have appeared on the show: He was once a clean-cut, former military man with two cop brothers who descended into drug use after his dad suffered a terrible work-related injury that nearly killed him. He self-identifies as a heroin addict and has maintained his habit for 14 years, injecting up to 15 bags of heroin a day and spending around $600 per day to fund it. He supports his habit by doing roofing with his dad, all while stealing air conditioners to sell as scrap and siphoning gasoline out of people’s cars. In two years, he’s overdosed three times and stayed in the hospital for days on end. And one look at Eric during most of his interviews says pretty much everything: his eyes rolled so far back in his head they look ready to loop right back around the front, muttering nonsense to the cameras and nodding off. It’s tragic. Even he readily admits, “My whole fucking life revolves around drugs.”
Outside of his immediate family, Eric’s ex-girlfriend Valerie appears as a bit of a question mark in the addiction equation. Eric and Valerie are clearly still very enthralled with one another, though her embarrassment at being involved with a self-described addict is keeping her at (barely) an arm’s distance. They’re great friends, in her eyes, though it becomes clear that she enables him worse than most. Even in the Catfish-style handheld camera shots that she helped put together to submit Eric to the show, she appears in a conflicting role in his life. Take, for example, the scene where he is giddily injecting himself with heroin while driving his truck as she holds the camera and laughs at his impressive multi-tasking. The notion that this is the same woman who cries rivers of tears during his intervention is confusing but also a real part of how enablers function in the life of the addict.
Meanwhile, Eric’s stoic father has relapsed after 15 years in recovery from drinking and pinpoints the downward spiral of his son as the reason. It’s also clear the two share a close bond—perhaps more so than anyone else in the family—and their struggles are intricately connected. His tears are the hardest to watch during the actual sit-down intervention and also the ones the seem to resonate most with Eric. It’s a shame that this bond isn’t explored more in the episode because as it’s relayed, it feels like like it’s missing vital pieces that would help further explain Eric’s descent into deep, long-term addiction.
But therein lies the biggest problem with Intervention: the need to know why? In the show’s necessary narrative, the plight of these real people becomes tidily packaged with a prologue, an inciting incident, a climax, and an eventual resolution. Sure, some of the resolutions aren’t neat and end with addicts refusing treatment (only a handful in the entire show’s run have flat-out refused) or relapsing soon after seeking help, but they all plot along a dangerously similar arc that surely doesn’t reflect reality. Anyone with a history of addiction knows that it’s a longterm struggle that can involve numerous relapses, severed relationships, and much, much worse. So by sanding down the edges of a very real, very traumatic part of our human existence, the show creates a template that looks ready to fit over any case of addiction or alcoholism. Any longtime viewer has seen the letter reading portion of the show and might assume those flimsy pieces of paper and a stern interventionist are capable of reversing decades of self-destruction.
It’s little surprise that Eric is one of the addicts most ready for treatment. Just barely into the letter reading portion of the surprise intervention, he softens and admits that he wants “to make the greatest comeback and make everyone proud.” Their relief is palpable and immediately extends to his dad, who recommits to sobriety in order to set a good example for Eric as he attempts recovery.
Three months later, the show makes its signature check-in (complete with a rosy score) at the Louisiana facility where Eric has sought treatment. His cheeks are full and color beams from his face, which is oftentimes the case for those who stick with treatment and face the cameras again some months later. His family is visibly delighted about his newfound sobriety, hugging him and peering around the treatment center with wide eyes. For now, he’s healthy and alive and that’s about as much as you can hope for in the initial steps of recovery.
Before wrapping up, the show features title cards thanking the participants, family members, treatment centers, and professionals who have helped the show over the years. Then, half a dozen familiar faces from memorable episodes appear to attest to the power of the show in their lives. Many view Intervention as a life-changing force, which really is an incredible feat for a reality show.
That double-edged sword will remain the legacy of the show. Its ability to depict the complete and utter heartbreak of addiction—as well as the devastation is causes in the lives of those around the addict—made it landmark television in its own right. But it’s impossible to completely wash away the lingering distaste of showcasing vulnerable (and oftentimes mentally ill) individuals for public consumption. Just look at the nearly 900,000 YouTube views for the wailing cry of Intervention subject and former cocaine addict Rocky Lockridge, along with the requisite AutoTune remixes and remakes. It’s bizarre—but also a real cry from a human whose life has been shredded to ribbons by addiction. It’s uneasy stuff and primed for the age we live in, and it lives on in Intervention spin-offs and duplicates. Perhaps watching a woman compulsively chew on squares of toilet paper is more palatable than watching Eric jab a needle into his arm. Either way, it’s all engrossing and an eerily historic spectator sport.