On the ethics of sensationalized reality shows cashing in on dysfunction.
In one episode of Intervention, a young woman rocks back and forth on a couch in front of the camera, cigarette in hand. Nonchalantly, she speaks: “I smoke crystal meth. Mostly on Tuesdays.” In another scene, she’s curled up on the ground crying. But just moments before, she was roaming aimlessly around a parking lot, lashing angrily with nonsensical phrases of nouns and verbs. Trapped in a methamphetamine-induced psychosis, she’s 19, wearing dark skinny jeans with a black hoodie, and covered by a head of wild, curly brown hair. But it’s her eyes that grab you the most — as blue and beautiful as the sky on a sunny day, these aren’t the eyes of a senseless lunatic. They’re the eyes of a kid who likely danced in front of the TV on Christmas morning or of one who brought back an A+ on her spelling test to her mother, beaming with pride.
Such stark scenes from the American reality TV show Intervention have been running since 2005, and the show continues to enjoy immense popularity from a dedicated cult following.
Heavily dramatized with quick scene cuts and ominous music, the show documents the lives of drug abusers and their families, who stage a televised intervention for them to seek help. The drugs discussed during these interventions have included everything from alcohol and heroin to eating disorders and autoasphyxiation.
By delving into these stories for 45 minutes at a time, you come to know both the addicts and their families. Tragedy is frequent. Abuse is rampant. Happy endings occur, but so do relapses.
There’s something strangely addictive about watching a show like Intervention. I admit that I felt compelled to binge-watch some episodes on certain nights. Motivations aside, fans all over enjoy the show. Frequent comments on YouTube videos echo this sentiment. “I need an intervention for watching Intervention!” is an oft-repeated phrase.
What draws people to the show in the first place?
I often wonder what makes Intervention so entertaining.
Mind you, this post was written by a person with minimal health problems who comes from a relatively well-adjusted, middle-income background.
Watching Intervention, I’ve always felt a small shadow of guilt at the edge of my mind. It’s like I’m doing something unethical by getting a kick at watching other people’s suffering. Still, I would rationalize it: well, this show is educational; well, thanks to this show I’m never going to try heroin; well, thanks to this show I’ll be a lot more grateful for the circumstances I was born into.
Still, I don’t understand the source of the rush that comes with watching morbid entertainment like this. Perhaps it is a form of reassurance that no matter how difficult my life gets, it’s not going to be as bad as that. Maybe it’s a way of reminding myself that worse things can happen.
Is it just morbid curiosity?
Perhaps my feelings are not so excusable. Perhaps it’s similar to the feeling you get from watching shows like Maury or scrolling through the r/trashy forum on Reddit, a sort of schadenfreude. There’s a pleasure — a sense of relief — that comes from watching others’ misfortune. Perhaps I like the feeling of being able to point at someone and say, “At least I haven’t failed that hard in life!”
How many times have you driven by a car accident and been tempted to stare? You want to know what happened, possible grisly sighting be damned.
Are humans just naturally nosy animals that delight in the misfortune of others?
Where does this morbidity come from?
When I was a kid, I was told by every adult that doing drugs was bad. That the kids who did drugs were bad. Which led me to believe that anyone and everyone who did drugs was bad.
When you think about a drug addict, what comes to mind? A millennial dressed to the hipster nines who’s coding for a start-up? A frazzled mother head bent over her children, ushering them impatiently onto the bus? A professor sitting on a park bench with one leg over the other, reading a novel? No, you likely think of a gaunt, dirty character — most likely male — with dishevelled hair and stained, mismatching clothes, walking up and down the highway meridian brandishing a sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.
We’re so keen to conflate drug abuse with failure, but if you watch a show like Intervention, you’ll learn that very rarely do they involve characters like the guy with the sign. Many drug abusers are intelligent, come from middle-class families, were incredibly ambitious as young people, and accomplished great things. They’re attractive and beautiful with soft voices and bell-like laughter. Of course, there are a few people here and there that match the stereotype, but they tend to be in the minority.
You begin to learn the reasons for their addiction. Most of the time, it’s not their fault, at least not entirely. Broken families. Abusive parents. Death of a sibling. Or simply, because it runs in the family. Your feelings of disgust begin to change; if at first they were directed at the abuser, you begin feeling disdain for the enabling boyfriend, the abusive mother, and the sister in denial.
Contrary to popular belief, drug abuse is seldom the consequence of bad parenting or a lazy character. It has a strong genetic component. Addicts beget addicts. This doesn’t mean that certain people are doomed per se; this only means some people are naturally more vulnerable to addiction than others.
Should we change our perception of drug abuse?
What of the people who had no reason to try a drug but did so anyway for kicks?
Consider the Redditor who went to the local junkie park with the intention of buying weed but ended up trying heroin for the hell of it. He ended up getting addicted, and his life — once relatively normal — spiralled out of control.
There’s another thing people get wrong: sometimes, the drug is simply stronger than you. Even if you had the strongest human willpower in the world, if you make just one mistake, you can tumble into the greedy clutches of a substance.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold people like the Redditor above unaccountable — after all, they did make a bad decision to “just try.” It simply means that perhaps we should get off our high horse and stop assuming that we’re better than them.
That guy on the meridian? You don’t know how he got there.
What’s your heroin?
Most of us have an addiction.
It might not be heroin or cocaine, but it might be sugar, coffee, cigarettes, video games, or cheeseburgers. Benign as these addictions may sound, some can (and have) ruined people’s lives. For instance, experiments on rats have shown that a sudden withdrawal of sugar can cause withdrawal symptoms similar to heroin. Of course, some things (i.e., heroin, cigarettes) are more addictive than others (i.e., weed, ice cream), and not everything gives nasty withdrawal effects if you try to quit, but the psychological mechanism is similar. Irritability, short-temperedness, restlessness, and even boredom seizes your day when you can’t get your fix. You’ve probably tried to cut out a junk food thinking it would be easy, only to think about it more times during the day than you’d admit.
So, how does ethics fit into all this?
Back to Intervention: to watch or not to watch?
Ultimately, it’s up to you, but do ask why you watch the things you watch, and slow down throughout the day to think about how it affects you, your emotions, and how you see the world. Media is powerful. We think of TV and film as things to relax to at the end of the day, but in reality, they reach far into our psyches and influence the way we think, feel, and act. Subconsciously, what we consume directs our perspectives and our perceptions, our opinions and ideals.
Perhaps that’s your intervention: to question yourself. Next time you see a drug abuser writhing in psychosis, teeth chattering, eyes wide as dish plates, remember the story of the girl you saw on TV who says she “smokes meth. Mostly on Tuesdays.”