Sam Mettler Stepped Into Serious TV Territory With 'Intervention'

Sam Mettler, executive producer of
Sam Mettler, executive producer of "Intervention" (Paula Davenport)
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By Tamara Jones
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Now in its fifth season, A&E Network's harrowing show "Intervention" follows the lives of America's "hidden" addicts: the suburban mother hooked on painkillers, the pretty rich girl smoking heroin in her frilly bedroom, the dashing young entrepreneur drinking himself to death. At the end of each mini-documentary, loved ones stage an intervention in which the addicts are offered free inpatient treatment for 90 days. We caught up by phone with Sam Mettler, the show's creator and executive producer.

How did this show come about?

It was from an offhand comment. My dad for years has used this cologne that's just over the top. He'd kiss my children and they'd reek of it. One day, I called my sister and I said, "We gotta do an intervention with Dad on his cologne." I had been trying to come up with an idea for a new show . . . and I thought, " 'Intervention.' That's it." What came out of an off handed comment has become this powerhouse -- a successful and socially important television series. It's just incredible.

You film people while they engage in behavior that's both illegal and life-threatening. Where's the border between observing and stepping in?

Even though there's no obligation legally for us to step in, that doesn't mean as moral, ethical human beings that we can stand by and watch imminent health threats or public danger just happen. I wouldn't sleep at night. Like Corinne, a diabetic who was using her insulin needles to shoot up heroin. When she started complaining of feeling weak . . . I told her to get on the phone with her doctor or I was going to call 911.

Why do you think people are fascinated by this show?

This show is real and relatable. The drama isn't contrived or elevated by "producing scenes," trickery in edit, or heavy music cues. Viewers are moved by the substance, weight and power of this show. It is so powerful, that there is a sense of wonder that we were even able to capture these stories. It is the intensity combined with the "relatablity" that fascinates our viewers.

Does spending so much time immersed in these lives ever get to you?

What haunts me is the collateral damage to innocent children whose lives are torn apart. They call addiction the family disease for a reason. There was a story we did awhile ago: Leslie. She had three wonderful children. She was an alcoholic and her drinking was so bad she was drinking generic drugstore mouthwash. To see an 11-year-old just sobbing at the loss of his mommy. To see that devastation. . . . I remember sitting in the plane on the way home and just sobbing. I couldn't stop. I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old.

Have you ever gotten a contact high?

I always thought that was baloney. Then I was doing this story: Caylee. She was 21. I was sitting on floor interviewing her in her very tiny girls' pink bedroom full of teddy bears in Salt Lake City. The room was filled with heroin smoke. I was not realizing that what she was missing with her straw was being drawn right into my lungs. I stood up and immediately I fell down onto her bed. I could not stop shaking and drooling. I felt horribly sick. It lasted maybe 45 minutes. She laughed at me. But was apologetic.

How is Caylee?

She relapsed a number of times, and is in 30-day court-ordered treatment. She's in the minority. Roughly 70 percent of the people we've featured -- 75 of the 96 -- are sober. We call constantly for updates.

You show the graphic reality of addiction. Where is the line for viewers between revulsion and revelation?

It's difficult to look at the very real physical and emotional wreckage of an addict's life . . . whether that be someone shooting up heroin, or a mother crying over the possible and probable death of her child if they refuse treatment. This show is educational, artful, dramatic and real at the same time. We get responses from treatment centers and viewers throughout our show's run stating that someone checked into treatment after watching a particular episode. It is humbling. It is too powerful to describe.

You have plans this season for an unprecedented reunion of addicts who have appeared on "Intervention." Tell us about that.

"Intervention" begins with addiction and hopefully ends with our subjects entering a recovery center. "From the start, we have never violated the sanctity of treatment by bringing cameras into rehab, but there is a hunger for that story." This special is a chance for a group of our subjects from various seasons to answer the requests from countless viewers to share their stories of hope and recovery.

What about Dad? Still fragrant?

I can say with all the confidence in the world that my father is in definite denial to this day. I don't think that the recovery field has adequately found the resources to deal with this disorder. It is a shame. However, my suffering nose was a small price to pay for the gift of this show.

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