Christina is a 21-year-old Riverside, Calif., woman living with her mother and taking constant hits off a crystal meth pipe whenever she isn’t gobbling as many as 50 prescription pain pills a day. Voices in her head taunt her, as do the absent wails of a baby son who now lives, by court order, with his father. While high, Christina stares in a makeup mirror and imagines that bugs are crawling out of the sores on her face and arms. She screams at her mother from morning to night and sometimes physically attacks her, until her older brother comes over to the house and wrestles her to the floor or an ambulance comes to escort her to an observation ward.
In other words, warm wishes for a Happy New Year from the people at A&E’s still absorbingly terrific and raw “Intervention,” which returns Monday night. Nothing has changed since the Emmy-winning show began in 2005. “Intervention” remains determined to bring the horrors of drug and alcohol addiction into plain light, through one hard-to-watch episode after another.
As reality programming goes, “Intervention” remains admirably free of the genre’s plot-advancing gimmicks, save one: Once they are confronted by their families and friends — the intervention of the title, facilitated by one of the show’s trained counselors — the addicts are offered three-month stays at some of the country’s best rehab centers. Such treatments can easily run to six-figure tabs, which means that appearing on “Intervention” is the one stroke of good luck that most of its subjects have ever encountered. “Will you accept the gift being offered you today?” their family members beg in tearfully composed letters read aloud. Some still do refuse the help, or accept it only to suffer relapse in due time. The show’s epilogues are often iffy at best, in the grand tradition of living one day at a time.
I remain hopelessly addicted to “Intervention,” which is surprising, given how the stories all tend to run the same course. Years have passed and yet some of “Intervention’s” addicts still remain fresh in my memory, as if I met them personally.
There are so many kinds of reality TV vying to suck what’s left of our brains from our skulls. On one end of the spectrum waits the greasy array of celebrity-centered melodrama. In the middle are a whole lot of people who’ve commodified their fringy occupations and lifestyles (wild boar hunters, extreme couponers, polygamists, tattoodlers) into passable television.
That leaves, on the more rare and documentary-minded end, shows like “Intervention” and its far more disturbing cousin, “Hoarders” (also returning to A&E Monday night), which specialize in empathetic TV for empathetic watchers. It is difficult to know where our caring stops and our sense of voyeurism begins. At the end of an episode, you have sponged up a lot of someone else’s grief and travails with no real payoff for yourself, other than the irresistible chance to have eavesdropped on another family’s nightmare.
“Intervention” fans have by now seen it all, including episodes that featured addicts who chose homelessness over rehab. In some cases, the subject’s unwillingness to accept help led to death. In all, there have been 214 interventions depicted on the show; of those, A&E claims 162 of the subjects remain sober thus far.
One might think that more addicts would have become hep to the “Intervention” ruse, in which they are asked to participate in a documentary about addiction, and then, near the end, are invited by the camera crew to what they understand to be a “final interview,” usually held in a conference room at an off-ramp business hotel. Here they find themselves surprised by concerned loved ones and an immediate ultimatum. They are almost always shocked at this turn of events, which, if nothing else, tells us what America’s alcoholics, OxyContin zombies, meth-heads and crack addicts aren’t watching on cable TV. (Then again, would you watch “Intervention” if you had a drug problem?)
“Intervention” succeeds mainly on its unflinching focus on the drama of addiction and recovery. But that’s only part of it. Watching Christina’s troubles unfold (her mother was a meth addict; her father ignored her), I am again reminded how “Intervention” is an armchair anthropologist’s dream come true. It features class cues, acculturated gender norms and social dysfunctions. It has bad furniture and dirty laundry strewn around in both the literal and metaphorical sense. It’s all here, and you are free to judge.
Christina’s world is one in which the women decorate in wicker, florals and cozy butterfly charm, while the men adorn themselves in neck tattoos and other identifiers of suburban machismo. Now you know: The gimlet eye of elitism is my true vice, but empathy is the best known cure. “Intervention” is only partly a show about dependency. It’s also one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking ways to further acquaint ourselves with the interior lives of our fellow Americans.
(one hour) returns Monday at 10 p.m. on A&E.