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What ‘Intervention’ Taught America About Addiction

Equal parts cringe and revolutionary, the A&E series is a fascinating quarantine binge — forcing us to reflect on just how clueless we were about addiction only 15 years ago

For a recovering drug addict like me, among the most entertaining quarantine binges has been white-knuckling my way through 20 seasons of Intervention, the long-running A&E reality show about addicts whose family members step in with an ultimatum to get treatment — or else lose everything. 

But bingeing Intervention these days has also made me reflect on how clueless America was about addiction in 2005, the year the series debuted. Take “Dana” (Season Thirteen, Episode Two), for example, declared by fans to be the “saddest” episode ever (an apartment fire had killed three of her children). It’s obvious to me now — having spent the last eight years in 12-step meetings listening to people try to make sense of their addictions, as well as the fact that today trauma is widely understood to be a leading cause of addiction — why Dana was instantly hooked on the Vicodin prescribed to treat the pain of her own third-degrees burns. “I needed something to calm me down from the terrifying flashbacks of the fire,” she tells me now, explaining the Vicodin removed “the heaviness on my chest and shoulders.” 

Yet, back when Dana’s episode first aired, Candy Finnigan, the interventionist, had to scold Dana’s brother for classifying her addiction as a moral failure. “If we don’t treat the trauma, we’re never gonna be able to get her back whole,” Finnigan explains with the compassion of a kindergarten teacher. 

And just like that, America was offered a master class on the worthiness of compassion when treating addiction, despite its connection to trauma not being scientifically recognized for seven more years. 

At the time, Americans remained woefully naive to the true nature of addiction, a consequence of 200 years of misunderstanding the disease (or that it even was one). Opiate addicts in the 1800s were almost exclusively characterized in the press as people of color, even though a large segment of white people were addicted as well. By the 1960s, substance abuse treatment centers often forced applicants to sit quietly for hours before intake interviews, at which they were required to admit being “stupid.” And after zero-tolerance campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s (the “War on Drugs,” “Just Say No,” etc.), the focus on a “solution” to chemical dependency shifted from treatment to criminalization. Underlying throughout was a not-so-subtle religious suggestion that addiction is a moral failing and venial sin

All of which is to say, most American’s familiarity with interventions in the early aughts was limited to the fourth season of The Sopranos, in which the family urges Christopher to get treatment for heroin addiction (and devolves into them beating the crap out of him instead). “People believed an intervention was a big F you to your loved one,” Intervention creator Sam Mettler tells me. “No, it’s an offer of treatment, and if someone refuses, a decision of whether the family wants to be part of the illness or not.”

The use of interventions originated in the 1960s, when Vernon Johnson, an Episcopal minister, urged family members of addicts to “bring the bottom to them” in order to save their lives. Those who would be seated in the first two pews of the funeral should lead the intervention, Johnson explained. 

It’s surprising, then, that such a dark concept for such a TV show was the brainchild of Mettler, a fledgling comedy writer in the early aughts whose credits included “Maintenance Guy” on the ABC sitcom Norm. He says he’d been aware of interventions previously, but the term really came to him in 2001 as an off-handed joke about his father. “My dad would wear way too much cologne,” Mettler says. “He’d pick up my baby son, and we’d have to give him a bath when we got home because he smelled like my dad. I called my sister and said, ‘We’ve got to do an intervention on dad about the cologne. It’s getting ridiculous.’ That’s how the word got to my brain.” 

At the time, Mettler was working on a docuseries concept for MTV that wasn’t going anywhere. So he pivoted to the idea for Intervention instead. “I wanted to find interesting people who already had lives that were dramatic, with high stakes, and have them take us through their lives without interfering with them whatsoever. I roughly knew what an intervention was, but my preconceived notion was it being a much higher conflict negotiation than the gift it actually is — a gift of life, a gift of treatment, a gift of an answer.”

He pitched the concept to MTV in 2001, and was scheduled to fly to New York to begin developing the show on September 12, 2001. Of course, he never went. It was determined that the country had endured enough heartache on 9/11 and wasn’t yet ready for a show about substance abuse. The idea sat on Mettler’s computer for three more years, before he eventually pitched it directly to A&E, who loved the concept. 

In the fall of 2004, he recruited Orange County-based Jeff VanVonderen, a former pastor, recovering alcoholic and interventionist trained in a confrontational style of rehabilitation, to do an on-camera audition. VanVonderen tells me he thought the show would never work because he’d been working with addicts for years and didn’t know any who’d want cameras following them through the darkest moments of their lives. 

Nevertheless, Mettler asked him to conduct a role-play intervention. VanVonderen instructed a PA (who was playing the role of the addict) to leave the room so he could address the family. He went to a white board and began conducting intervention training for the “family” in the room. “I wanted A&E to clearly see,” he explains. “Because people had no idea what an intervention even was. They just thought of the Sopranos beating up Christopher, or Cartman forced to go to a fat camp on South Park. They just didn’t get it.”

A&E ordered a pilot, so long as VanVonderen would be in it. And while the small-town Wisconsin pastor never aspired to be on TV, he said yes anyway. “I pictured a mom and dad sitting on the sofa having been through a crisis with their methamphetamine-addicted son or daughter, hoping they could get their attention before they killed themselves. But then they stumble on Intervention and realize there’s one more thing they can try. 

After the show was picked up in 2005, Mettler started looking for a female counterpart for VanVonderen to round out the show. “Betty Ford had a list of their preferred interventionists and I just started calling them,” he explains. Finnigan, a recovering alcoholic from Kansas City, was at the top of the list, but producers worried she looked “too old.” “I got a call the day after I did the mock intervention,” Finnigan tells me. “They said, ‘We didn’t realize you were that old.’ I said you can’t be 17 and sing the blues. If you want somebody who’s 5-foot-10 with big tits and blonde hair, I ain’t it.” 

She got the job. 

The dramatic scenes of the addict spiraling out of control leading up to the intervention were shot on handheld cameras by field producers like Jeffrey Weaver, who later served as an executive producer on the show. Intervention’s goal from the start, Weaver explains, was to interact with subjects as human beings first: “We felt like seeing things from the side of the person struggling was important.” As such, Weaver immersed himself with subjects for weeks at a time, often sleeping on their couches or floors. The non-stop documentation meant he not only felt responsible for telling their story, but also for ensuring their wellbeing. 

To that end, he recalls standing in a bathroom with a heroin addict who had just shot up, a camera in one hand and his phone in the other. “I would dial 911 and keep my thumb on the send button in case the person were to overdose,” he tells me. “We were very dedicated to documenting what our subjects lives really were, not fabricating them, not altering them, not trying to create some hyperbolic version of their experience. These were stories that hadn’t surfaced in popular culture, and we were committed to the idea that if we could share these stories on a significant platform like A&E, it would be a game changer in the public conversation of addiction.”

That said, some critics have found the transparency-at-all cost premise of Intervention to be problematic, particularly since the addict never sees the confrontation coming. Season 20 centered on Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, but was panned by addiction advocates like Brooke Feldman, who felt the show “sensationalizes what is really a health condition.” Weaver, however, rejects that criticism: “Our focus was always on making sure addicts had a path to recovery, and everything that we did to document that journey was geared toward giving subjects access to that help.” 

More largely, people are now questioning the efficacy of interventions altogether, suggesting instead that motivational interviewing, a cognitive behavior therapy designed to strengthen one’s motivation to change, to be less combative and more effective. 

Still, Season 22 of Intervention is poised to premiere this spring, though A&E has yet to reveal any information about its release, or whether it will continue to be dominated by one addiction. Nearly all of the most recent episodes have focused on the opiate crisis, and the last non-substance addiction — e.g., exercise, bulimia, gambling, shopping — featured was in 2013. 

Either way, I will be forever grateful for the show. As I viewer obviously, but most of all, as a recovering addict, for helping America confront its own drug problem.

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