Monday, July 07, 2008


In case you had any remaining doubts, I watch television. I enjoy most of the obvious shows and hate all of the bad ones. I do not pay for cable so at least I can pretend to dislike TV and do quite often. But in reality, that is a bit of a lie. I crave the quick fix that it supplies. In the summer, I watch more TV than usual because I don’t have as many responsibilities, I get a little bored, and I like the alternative reality that it provides. Unfortunately, the idea of watching any TV show at all is, like most things that are not my dissertation, quite moronic.

My confession is that unless I’m watching something humorous, I like to pretend that I’m learning something important from TV. I think this is because it cushions the blow of time wasting. In this way, sociology can be a little like crack for me. When I blow off some of its basics (like having a “methodology” or “theoretical framework”) analysis is much faster and easier. Plus, instead of feeling lazy and sedentary, I feel like an intellectual giant, alone but authoritative right in my own living room. Who needs publications when you can spout off during the commercial breaks? One show that satisfies my fix is “Intervention”, a reality show on A & E which I watch consistently. It has become my friend.

Each episode of Intervention is an hour long portrayal of a person addicted to a substance or lifestyle (like gambling). Unlike other reality TV shows where the manifest or latent goal is to win fame (American Idol, Real World, Survivor), Intervention offers no big chance to move on to the final round. If you’re on Intervention, this is the end game. The protagonist has hit rock bottom and they are controlled by their drug of choice. We see them shoot up, throw up, and fuck up - repeatedly. True to its name, the protagonist faces a family meeting towards the end of the show where they are offered 90 days of rehab that the family could not otherwise afford. There’s a reason why the show airs on Monday nights: it’s not for fun. And for this reason, it is all the more conducive to analysis.

There are obvious psychological conclusions to be drawn during Intervention. Father and/or mother figures disappear, people are sexually and emotionally abused, and bad coping strategies are learned left and right. But sociology is where it’s at with me, so I pay attention to job histories, birth order, experiences with discrimination or institutional racism, educational attainment, and with women especially: marital status. All predict income and employment status which says a lot about one’s feelings of control. Low income predicts external locus of control which is the idea that fate, not personal action is what really makes the world go round. Higher income people tend to have internal locus of control. They assume that it is their hard work, not their family legacy or racial privilege, for example, that has brought them success. I would also imagine that external locus of control correlates with substance abuse but I don’t know for sure. The causality could go either way.

At any rate, I like to put Intervention on a pedestal because it may help others to understand the structural conditions under which people become addicts (as opposed to emotional weakness or biological reasons), but it mirrors every other reality TV show out there. Even though it is shot in cinema verite style and thus appears to be an intellectual endeavor, the producers of the show are not saints. Intervention has commercial value, otherwise it would not be on cable TV. The show offers a prize at the end, rehab, and the counseling centers get free advertising in exchange. It’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing but the reality is that addicts have consented to be on the show because their ability to make good decisions has been greatly compromised. They are told that they are the subject of a documentary on addiction and never the title of the show. This, in and of itself, is not criminal per se, but that would not get approved by any institutional review board. There are even moments of dramatic suspense built in, just like the reveal on Love Connection or American Idol. Will the addict agree to go to rehab? And: will they stop using as a result?

Maybe I need an intervention. Hardly anything can be explained in a 60 minute time slot so I get to feel like an intellectual detective, trying to put the pieces of the story together. Besides, addiction is personally foreign to me so I become entranced by my lack of understanding. In combination, these two elements create a situation in which I endlessly analyze because there is only biased, insufficient data. In my little game, it doesn’t matter if I draw valid conclusions, only that I have any analysis at all. I realize now that this is all a bit silly. Perhaps if we change our scope and move past the individual episodes to see the show as a whole, we can see its place in society.

What seems closer to the truth is that if the show really wanted to help addicts, it would donate its profits to rehabilitative services or lobby for changes in drug law. Intervention allows A & E to sell ads for lots of cars, Flomax, and toilet paper. But only one organization that provides rehabilitation services can apparently afford to buy a single 15 second ad on the nights that Intervention airs in two back to back episodes.

The only thing we really learn from Intervention is that being on TV is now the new low of hitting rock bottom. The show may make its consumers feel important, as if we are an extended family intervening on their behalf. We should be critical of this position because it is a lazy way of feeling something about others. Instead of focusing on ourselves and fostering our own relationships, we sit on our couches and veg out with voyeurism. On the other hand, Intervention is informative because it shows that people very similar to us can spiral out of control. The reality is that we have a substance abuse problem in America. I think we use TV, meth and money to escape the depression of underemployment in the new knowledge economy - the system in which independent thoughts are a commodity and those without them are supposed to be losers. We have devalued all other forms of work. Physical labor and carework, the very tasks for which humans are best suited, are the hardest hit.

In the end, I'm glad that Intervention exists. While the subject of some exploitation, substance abusers are getting help that they would not otherwise. But we really need a different type of intervention all together.