An Oral History Of "Intervention"
How a cable show navigated the opposing forces of recovery and good TV. From the mouths of producers, interventionists, directors, and a recovered huffer.
A&E's Intervention comes to an end this week after eight years, 13 seasons, 243 interventions, 194 episodes, and an Emmy win for Outstanding Reality Programming. Among the reality TV clutter of Kardashians, pawn stars, and boozy housewives, Intervention distinguished itself from other shows by relying on classic documentary techniques, handheld cameras, and deep dives into the tormented psyches of addicts, enablers, and their often dysfunctional families. It sustained itself without scripted contrivances, but rather with the real-life drama that is prevalent behind the closed doors of so many American families.
The idea for Intervention came about in 2000, when show creator Sam Mettler, who was working as comedy writer, joked about organizing his family to confront his father about the stinky cologne he wore. "Originally, I pitched the show to MTV, and it would be half serious episodes and half light," Mettler recalls. "It could be on any topic — from bad hair to bulimia."
When A&E picked up the show in 2005, Intervention did not stand alone as a program about rehabilitation. But its competitors (like Celebrity Rehab) always capitulated to the salaciousness of the addiction itself. Intervention took itself seriously, and while it complied with the demands of television, it also provided addicts and their families an array of comprehensive resources way beyond the reach of an average user and his family. There is no standard metric for recovery, but if you take into account the revolving door of drug offenders who "graduate" from drug courts, the commonly held view that relapsing is a part of recovery, or anyone who has dealt with the baffling power of addiction in their own life, a recovery rate of 64% for Intervention alumni is impressive any way you cut it. It may sound corny or perhaps it was just the cost of doing business, but the producers invested in their subjects. After extracting from them all the drama possible, addicts were repaid with the highest-quality, cutting-edge care.
In May of this year, A&E canceled the long-running series due to declining ratings. The network's highest-rated show currently is Duck Dynasty.
"The show took intervention mainstream," says Jeff VanVonderen, a former alcoholic and the most recognizable interventionist from the series. "It's now everywhere ... I think it changed the world. If I didn't work on the show, and I still worked in the field I worked in, I would be sad and angry that the show went away, because it mattered; and Duck Dynasty does not matter. The trials and tribulations of hillbilly prima donnas does not matter."
No question, there was a voyeuristic streak to the show — all good television is voyeuristic. The genius of Intervention, however, was letting the camera roll to reveal the elaborate, sometimes byzantine, cover-up networks and mechanisms constructed by addicts and their families. And the audience, knowing the formula, would wait with real anticipation, as one of the hard-nosed interventionists would arrive on the scene, pull whatever there was of the family together and force them to stop enabling the addict.
The most mesmerizing allure of the show was not the depraved behavior of the featured addict — everybody knows to what desperate ends a junkie will go to get a fix — but the skill with which the interventionists would unearth the tangled family relationships. Even if viewers didn't have an addict in their family, the self-deception, denial, and co-dependencies that were so joltingly exhibited every week were often all too familiar.
What follows is what it felt like to be a part of the show that had to negotiate the boundaries of good TV, exploitation, docudrama, and recovery, through the eyes of the show's producers, directors, casting crew, and its most infamous addict.
The Family Crucible of Addiction: From Crack Dens to Sunday Dinner
In the fall of 2004, Sam Mettler recruited Orange County-based Jeff VanVonderen, an interventionist trained in a confrontational style of rehabilitation, to do an on-camera audition for a new reality show he was pitching to Hollywood production company GRB Entertainment. VanVonderen came to GRB's offices and conducted a fake intervention with members of the production team on camera. After the show was picked up by A&E in 2005, Mettler and producers started looking for VanVonderen's female counterpart to round out the show. A recovering alcoholic from Kansas City named Candy Finnigan was at the top of the list, but producers worried she looked "too old." Finnigan told producers if they wanted to find a thin, young, pretty woman to run interventions, they should "contact the Screen Actor's Guild, not a trained professional" like her. She got the job. Mettler stayed on as field director for the first 100 episodes. Once the production team had, in Mettler's words, "learned enough to train other people in how to perform this delicate surgery," Dan Partland and Jeff Grogan, two documentarians, were brought on during the show's second season to oversee production.
Sam Mettler (series creator, executive producer): I was a comedy writer at MTV working on reality-based TV around 2000, and it wasn't really going anywhere. I originally pitched the show to MTV. At first it was a mix of heavy and light interventions — everything from bulimia to bad hair. It didn't go anywhere — the idea just sat on my desktop for two years. Then I mentioned the show to a lifelong friend, Rob Sharenow, who was working as a producer at A&E, and he said, "Send it to me right away." A&E's original programming was just starting, with shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter and Gene Simmons' Family Jewels. So Rob said, "You have to make this more serious." Within three weeks we were in pre-production. I immersed myself in the recovery world. I was attending 12-step meetings all the time. Jeff and Candy were two names that kept coming up.
Jeff VanVonderen (interventionist): I didn't hesitate to do the show. I've been doing interventions for decades, and before the show, half the time people at the intervention would say, "Wow, I didn't even know there was such a thing." Or, "I wish I would known about this five years ago, my dad might still be alive." And I thought, Well, shit, there is such a thing, and it's really effective and more people need to know about it. I always picture a mom and dad flipping channels. They have a drug-addict son, they've kicked him out, turned off his cellphone, he's on the street somewhere. And they're wringing their hands and then they see on TV there's one more thing they can try.
Dan Partland (executive producer): When I came in late in Season 2, I think the show was still trading in too much on its own novelty. It still was very shocking to see this kind of stuff on TV. Seeing addicts confess their addictions. Seeing people putting needles in their arms and neck. Getting access to an otherwise unseen world. That's such an incredible thing that documentary can do. But eventually, over time, that tires and it became too difficult to find newer and newer angles about addiction. We stopped seeing the show as a way to document how strange or unusual addicts' behavior can be, and instead [as a way to document] how complex their family conflicts were. We developed a new criteria for the show: Is this still a great story without addiction?
Candy Finnigan (interventionist): Addiction makes love between family members conditional. That's, to me, the saddest part of addiction. The addict has so many conditions on so many people. Their heart's almost unmendable.
Partland: We wanted to tell stories that had interpersonal complexity, and that addiction just amplified the stakes. A fascinating and complex relationship with one's mother would need the crucible of addiction to compel viewers. When we had this breakthrough, we felt that we had an infinite amount of things we could do.
Finnigan: I personally couldn't imagine wanting to call up a TV show so I could air out my dirty laundry in order to get help. I was such a secret drinker. I drank while my kids were at school. I went from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. My kids were the secret keepers. I didn't want to be recognizable as an addict. But when we started doing the show, we found the main motivator for addicts agreeing to be filmed was that they did not want other people to live how they do.
Mettler: I think the network was very brave. Their advertising person was certainly nervous — who would want to run ads during this show? The New York Times did a feature on the future of reality TV and it was all about our pilot, over the fold, in the Arts section with an arrow pointing from Oprah to Jeff VanVonderen. The network ordered 13 more episodes the next day.
VanVonderen: People tell me that I look like a better-looking, svelte Dr. Phil.
Elaine Frontain Bryant (A&E senior vice president of non fiction and alternative programing): It was the first time I had seen addiction portrayed on TV without the cheesy Afterschool Special vibe. After we saw the first episode about Gabe, the gambling addict, the network asked producers something they always ask after seeing a great pilot: "Can you do this again?" They did it over and over again for eight years.
Jeff Grogan (co-executive producer): I think many people wanted to know if a person was going to go to rehab or not, but also, were these family conflicts going to get resolved? Is the father going to forgive the son? Is the mother going to stop enabling the daughter? Are the husband and wife going to reconcile? That's what I think the audience was really sticking around to find out week after week.
Mettler: People who sayIntervention is exploitive know nothing about it. They don't understand or want to understand the message of the show. They don't know the care that this production team has taken over the years.
Partland: Great drama has no bad guys. This is a show about good versus good. Nobody has bad intentions, and they are guilty of the feelings that a lot of us have.
“Wait, am I on Intervention?!”: Masters of Deflection
Ratings rose and were strong for its first six years. The casting process became more rigorous and selective as the show gained popularity, peaking at several million viewers in 2009. Addicts who were submitted to the show (through a short prompt on A&E's website) by their families grew suspicious that they would be walking into an filmed intervention. Producers and crew developed crafty techniques to keep the inevitable intervention secret without deception.
Anne Touchette (casting director): We had over 25,000 submissions during the eight years we did the show. We produced 234 for the episodes. For addicts and families, we looked for emotional accessibility and high loss potential. What have they lost so far? What was the context they were coming from? What were they losing?
Partland: We never told addicts anything that was untrue before or during the shoot. Some addicts, believe or not, are so caught up in their disease that they don't keep up with pop culture or A&E programming. The rule was very simple: You can't tell them that it IS Intervention and then you cannot say it's NOT Intervention. You can't tell there's going to be an intervention because it would ruin the effectiveness of intervention. We just told the addicts it was a documentary about addiction for television. Some shoots didn't come together, so we could also comfortably say, "I don't know if this will screen on television."
Touchette: Once we selected a family, we'd send them a lengthy email. This scared a lot of people off. First we'd ask the family members to record themselves on video. We'd send them a list of questions to answer on tape. Like, "What kind of behaviors do you see?" "Describe the present-day situation." "Why do you think this addiction started?" They would also need to get the addict on video talking about their problem. Some families would send us hours and hours of video. Others would take over a year to send back their tapes.
If an addict asked me during pre-production. "Is this Intervention?" I would say, "Oh, do you think you need an intervention? Here are some great resources. Interventions are a very serious thing — have you seen the show? I think that's a good show." "Man, everyone asks me that, everyone thinks that! Why does everyone think that? Have you seen this episode? What was the one you liked?"
Sarah Skibitzke (field director): All the family members were miked all the time on a shoot, so if someone colluded with the addict and told them they were on Intervention, we would pack up and leave immediately.
Partland: We became masters of deflection. We trained the family how to cover up their steps — how delete their emails, their texts, their internet cache, all the smart ways an addict would think to investigate what was going on. None of our phone lines traced back to the production company. We'd have a dummy website that was up that was connected to the show but wasn't connected to the A&E site or any of the producers.
Touchette: Only twice did I get cornered. Two different people asked me, "Yes or no: Is this Intervention?" I had to say yes.
Finnigan: Choosing the families was done with perfection. I can't even imagine doing that job, it makes me ill to even think about how hard that must be to do it. Before I landed in a city to film an intervention, I would be given a hundred pages of interviews. It was beautiful work. I read every word.
Partland: It's a chicken and the egg. You can't say if the family dynamic created a fertile ground for the addiction to grow or if the addiction created the bad family dysfunction, but there's always both. You never really find an addict in isolation; there's always some kind of support system there that's enabled by the choices they and family members make.
Finnigan: Some families got sicker than others by the time we showed up because in order for the intervention to be successful, the families had to keep track of the person, keep them close, and in some ways, enable their behavior more so they could keep better tabs on them, alive, not arrested. Some still lived on the street but now their family knew what street.
Grogan: Once we had all our pre-production interviews done, usually over the course of two intensive weeks, we'd put together a template. It was a document that would map out all the various conflicts in the family and what we wanted to get. The shoot consisted of three to four verité days where you would follow the addict and their family, documenting. Then we would spend a day shooting the formal interviews. One day filing the pre-intervention, and then the next day was intervention.
Skibitzke: What always surprised me was how open and vulnerable the addict was to strangers. They have a real need to tell their story. Their family has heard it a thousand times and they're sick of it. Their friends are long gone. So they swing the door right open for strangers.
Grogan: We'd pay camera crews flat rates — most shoots were seven days long — because sometimes an addict's activity wouldn't start until two in the morning, but addicts are a slave to their drug, so we know that in a four-day span they would go score and use. Some addicts would try to be on their best behavior the first day, but that would always crumble.
Skibitzke: It was never exploitive, we were friends in the room. We filmed when they would let us film, and if they said no, we would come back tomorrow. "We'll be back, we're not leaving you, because we want to hear your story." I think that's what made the show very different.
Partland: The show was grueling. It was incredibly demanding in nearly every regard. The schedule, the hours, the storytelling rigor, the work conditions in the field, and of course the emotional content was exhausting. What we learned early on was that we needed our crews to be very emotionally healthy people if they were going to interact with addicts and families. If they weren't, they could easily be subsumed into the dysfunction either participating in the subjects' crisis too much or simply triggering inner crises within themselves. We started offering to provide therapy to any crew members who were feeling vicarious trauma from their investment in these families. But after a short time we were more than offering, we were really encouraging everyone on the "front lines" to be engaged with a clinician to maintain their own emotional health.
Skibitzke: The crew's loyalty shifts during filming. Before you are hearing all these stories about how the addict has ruined their family members' lives. But once you're filming inside the house, you can see the silent looks of disgust a mother will give the addict. Or they're picking the good son constantly, or they have so much contempt in their voice. It draws on your own family stuff. It makes you question if your own body, psychology, family is healthy. You are witnessing the ultimate destruction of an individual. There's usually four of us who have dinner after the end of each shoot, and we have to talk about it and process it. You see all the dynamics at play and you can see how the addiction was fueled. And by the time the intervention comes around, you feel like, "Everyone is screwed up and everyone needs to go to Betty Ford!"
“Have a seat”: Notes on Style
Ken Seeley, a former crystal meth addict–turned–trained interventionist, had been, in his words, "harassing" Sam Mettler to be on the show. Mettler brought Seeley onto the series at the start of Season 2, in 2005. Dan Partland recruited a well-regarded but untrained interventionist named Seth Jaffe to join the cast for the show's 12th season.
Ken Seeley (interventionist): Intervention is based on the Vernon Johnson model — there are several other models for an intervention, like where you invite the addict to their intervention — but this one is the more in-your-face kind, which focuses on consequential thinking and surprise tactics. Being an addict in recovery myself, I know that we need a shock to the system to change. An intervention like the ones we did on the show were like rocket fuel. The Johnson model creates the feeling of, Oh god, I need to do this today!
VanVonderen: An intervention is an interruption in the direction things are going. Some people think the model is humiliating, so there's other methods to avoid the surprise and confrontation, but I think the Johnson [model] is the most effective.
Partland: In the early days of the show, we had some therapists conduct the intervention, but they did not have the take-no-prisoners attitude and tactics of the interventionists. For a trained interventionist, this is a life-or-death situation. The therapists had too much of a professional remove. Interventionists are willing to give chase.
Seth Jaffe (interventionist): When Dan [Partland] reached out to me, I sent him an email telling him why I wasn't really the right fit for Intervention. I'm not going to chase an addict down the street. If they don't want to go to rehab, then forcing them isn't going to work. I'm willing to talk to him and hope to inspire [him/her] to get help. I just know better. If they don't want to go on their own, they won't stay in rehab.
VanVonderen: My job is to get people out of the range of death and into the range of life — if I can get them in the range of life. The family just coming together to do an intervention is already putting the addict closer to the range of life. Getting them on a plane to rehab is moving them closer to life. If they don't take advantage of that, OK, I believe people have a right to be sick. They don't have to say yes to please me; I hope they don't, but I respect their right to not change. When they don't change, it doesn't frustrate me.
Finnigan: My strength as an interventionist is that I have an innate intuition about who is the secret keeper in a family, and who is the whisper keeper, and who's torn between everyone. I can also detect the sad soul, who has been neglected because of their family member's disease. I have a gift of perception. I see the person who has been spiritually bankrupted.
Jaffe: I have no certification. I have a GED diploma, no college training or degree. But I'm very good at this. I started working in rehabs from 1976 on. Daytop, Phoenix House, residential treatments all over the country, I've run thousands of hours of group therapy, I've done marathon sessions of group therapy from 80 to 90 hours where at the end people were on their knees clinging to my pant leg. I've heard the primal scream of a drug addict who was in agony because he slept with his mother. That's my background. That's my training.
VanVonderen: When I show up, it's a new dynamic for addict. Everyone who is still in the addict's life is deeply invested in everything the addict does. The addict alters their moods. I think the addict can sense they do nothing to my mood.
Seeley: I love the addicts that run. I think it was the Joey [heroin addict] episode, and he ran in the subways, and then the next day he was hiding in his drug dealer's house, in a locked basement. I think giving chase shows the addict how far their family is willing to take this and how much they care. Always at the intervention, I ask who is the fastest runner.
Finnigan: The third episode I did for the show, an uncle who had sexually molested the addict when she was a young girl was invited by the family to the intervention — I was informed that she had forgiven him. But I went outside and said, "You're not invited for this." And he said that he was a big part of the family and wanted to support her. I told him, "I don't want her to feel unsafe here and I'm a professional and I don't want to look at your face."
Jaffe: I was a bad kid from a poor home and I got hooked on heroin. I've been shot in a motel room. I've had both my arms and both my legs broken. I went to jail. I bullshitted everyone around me. Finally, I told my probation officer — on my own — that I wanted to go to treatment. I wanted to go the Marines of treatment. I went to Daytop in New York; you had to apply to get in. You'd go in a room with a staff member and they'd ask you why you wanted the help, and they wouldn't believe you at first, they'd make you prove. With me, I had to tell them over and over, then they made me stand up on my leg on a chair and sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to prove that I was serious.
Seeley: I tell the family, if you follow this plan, it's bulletproof. The only time it fails is when someone in the family or multiple people think they have a better system, and they sabotage the addict's recovery. They're getting something out of the person staying sick. Like when a mother wants to play savior to her son and rather have him dying and happy with her than healthy and mad at her. Or Kaila, [an anorexic who] weighed 88 pounds and was two days from death when she entered rehab. Her family called me hysterical when Kaila's grandmother flew her home early from rehab. I told them straight, "That woman is going to kill your daughter!"
Jaffe: I fucked up on my first intervention for the show [Sean, an alcholic]. I thought a plane flight to a rehab was too smooth, too easy. But if you drive, the reality starts setting in. We got the guy to agree to treatment after his daughter broke down and begged him. We started to drive the 650 miles to the rehab, but after two hours he wanted to turn back. He had a wealthy girlfriend. He called her and [had her send] a car for him. The whole thing reinforced my feeling that I wasn't right for the show. But I loved the people that were involved with the show and I figured it would be all right to compromise to work with them.
Finnigan: This show can't play God — we can only offer the best of everything.
Is Intervention Exploitation?: Allison’s Story
Allison Fogarty, a pre-med student in Rhode Island, was on her way to becoming a surgeon, but the trauma of being molested as a child and her parents' brutal divorce left her haunted. Allison became addicted to inhaling computer dust cleaner. At the height of her addiction, Allison was huffing 10 cans of Dust-Off a day, purchased at her local Staples. Her episode of Intervention aired in 2008 and has remained one the series' most popular and talked about.
Alison Fogarty (recovered addict, Intervention alum): I thought I was on a documentary show about the struggles of med school students. That's what my mom told me. I wasn't very accessible. I wouldn't answer the phone. I was loaded all the time. The producer kept saying, "We're going to come out and see you." I was like, "OK, whatever." I had just lost my first job. It was at a shoe store, but it was keeping me accountable, keeping me out of the house. I used get up every morning at 7 a.m. to get inhalants, like Dust-Off at Staples, and I'd put them in my car and get to work by 9:45. I remember being ecstatic at the end of my shift knowing that I'd be able to do them. I'd start to get nervous and anxious at 4 just waiting to get loaded. Then I'd go out and use all night, pretty much until 7 a.m. the next day until I could do it again.
Partland: I think families enter into Intervention with an equation that is very well balanced. They understand what they are getting into and they understand what they are getting out of it. One of the most important things we screen for is who is the most comfortable with being filmed. If they feel like, God, what I'm getting isn't worth putting my dirty laundry on TV, then they're not going to be as willing a subject. One of the hallmarks of the show is the complete willingness and frankness of the subject. I don't think this show or other shows like it are inherently exploitive — I think that's the choice of the filmmakers.
Fogarty: I'm in Rhode Island, so everyone around me really smoke pot or drank and I didn't really like either of those. For one, I suffer with anorexia, so I didn't want to smoke weed because it would give me the munchies. And I'm a huge control freak, so I don't drink. I had an ex-boyfriend who suggested trying inhalants and immediately fell in love because it was only a five-minute high — initially, of course.
Partland: I think that people worry that nonfiction film and television are exploitive mostly out of their own discomfort with the voyeuristic feelings that these shows arouse. Documentary and reality shows are inescapably voyeuristic, but that isn't the same as being exploitive. After all, the participants know that the purpose of the filming is to document their experience and to share it in a mass media form. Most participants in any kind of nonfiction film or television are participating in part because they want the soapbox and want to reach as many people as they can. I think that most of the discomfort audiences have is due to the newness of these nonfiction forms.
Fogarty: I remember being interviewed about my family, being loaded, and my "sugar daddy." While they were filming, my family took away my car and had me committed to the psych ward of a hospital. Jeff came in and gave me an ultimatum: I could leave if I went to treatment, but I ended up escaping because I had an ex-boyfriend who just let me out the back door 'cause he worked there. Then I took the bus for the first time in my life and I went to Wal-Mart and the producer, like, commandeered a car to follow me. It was pretty insane — by the time they got there, I was already exiting Wal-Mart loaded. I got back home, they kept banging on the door and my sister was there and I was like, "I absolutely do not have a problem!" and I was taking huge pulls from a can of Dust-Off.
Partland: If a writer were to follow and observe their family doing an intervention on them, no one would ask if it were exploitive to write about it because that was the plan all along.
Fogarty: I was psychotically angry about the whole thing. I can't believe I didn't have more of a meltdown on camera, but I was so angry that I collapsed in on myself. It had been such a crazy week of betrayal, I wasn't understanding. It took me a long time to get over that. To me the whole thing was an intense trauma.
Partland: There is an incredible intimacy that cameras provide. It makes us question, "Is the intrusion just too much?" I think that's always good question for audiences to ask and for filmmakers to ask. And how successful your piece is has a lot to do with how well you earned that intimacy and how well you balanced the subject's goals with the filmmaker's goals; on Intervention, despite the incredible intimacy, I think those goals were in very good balance.
Fogarty: Then Jeff and my family had my cat taken away. My cat was the catalyst for me going to treatment. It was so easy for me to be mad at everyone, but my cat didn't deserve any of this, so I spent the next day just hanging out in a bank because cameras can't go in banks. It was stupid because every five minutes I would sober up again so it was hijinks after hijinks. I finally came home, and they stopped by and they were like, "This is your last chance, yadda, yadda," and I was like, "Fuck off." Then the next morning Jeff said, "We're leaving, do you want to come with us?" And I just gave up and said, "OK, yeah, I guess so."
VanVonderen: After we called animal protective services on Allison's cat, and she agreed to go treatment, she wanted nothing to do with me.
Fogarty: At that point it wasn't even that I wanted to get better, I just wanted to punish everyone else. Like, "I'm leaving forever!" We drove right to the airport.
VanVonderen: She has her little hoodie over her head, her cloak of shame. We get to the airport. And I'm purposely not talking to her 'cause I don't want to blow the gig — so I went to the gift shop and bought her a stuffed cat and I walked up to her, handed her the cat, and we didn't say anything to each other the whole plane ride to rehab.
Fogarty: At rehab, word had gotten around to the staff and clients that I was being brought in by Intervention. So when I got there, one of the clients was like, "Oh, you're the new girl from Intervention." And I was like, "What the hell is Intervention?" The first night I was there, the clients showed me an episode of the show and I was like, "FUCK MY LIFE." And that was the first time I ever saw an episode, my first day in rehab.
VanVonderen: Six months after taking Allison to rehab I got an email from her apologizing for being such "a dick" and thanking me and hoping I forgive her. I wrote her back and said of course, and I'm glad she's doing good, and I asked how's the cat doing in treatment. And she said, "Cat VanVonderen is doing really well."
Fogarty: Obviously I'm grateful. I did the work and things turned out right. But it was a giant trauma. I wish I could have gotten to where I am without having to go through that experience. I don't feel like things are 100% fixed with my family, and it's embarrassing when I go on dates and the guy knows who I am. When I go out and people are like, "Oh my god, you're that drug addict! That was the funniest hour of my life!" It happens a couple times a week. I still have 100% shame when that happens. But some people approach me in a really positive way, like this woman at Pinkberry started to sob next to me in line and she hugged me and told me that her brother saw my episode and it saved his life because he got into treatment. And I hugged her and said I was so glad, but it was still very awkward.
Partland: Sometimes the tough part is after addicts get clean and the reruns come on and it's traumatic for them. And when we learned of that, we would ask the network to suspend use of their episode, and they did that every time.
Fogarty: When my show is re-airing, someone from the show generally tells me they are re-airing. But there was a recent promo that featured my episode that I didn't know about and I just cried and cried when I saw it. At this point, I just launched my own business and feel like, enough already, it's been five years, I've done my time. I feel like it's time to let me go.
Highs, Lows, and Legacy
The show's ratings started to dip in the last two years. Producers tweaked the format — a flash forward before the credits, addition of new interventionists — but A&E decided to cancel the show. Today, 156 people of the 234 featured on Intervention are sober.
Skibitzke: A low moment for me on the show was when one of the subjects — I don't want to say who — I had filmed with died about a year after his intervention. Very brutal for me.
Mettler: If so many addicts didn't decide to go to rehab at the end of the shoots then the show would have been too much of a horror to produce. It would be too psychologically traumatizing for everyone.
Partland: The lowest moments of the show were the shoots that we had to abort. It didn't happen much, and we would only do that for one reason: collusion between the addict and the family. If we discovered that the family and the addict had conspired to make it appear that the addict was unaware of the impending intervention, then we would cancel the shoot midstream, because the intervention would be false. In the cases where we pulled the plug, we did our best to provide resources and assistance to those families; some succeeded, some didn't follow through. When you are in this for the opportunity to use your craft to bring help to people, it's devastating to leave people you've grown to care about in a crisis. But we did leave, to keep the integrity of the show and the process. We weren't willing to film hoax interventions.
Finnigan: While the show did offer the families treatment at places like Betty Ford, we didn't provide any resources for them to actually go. Many families couldn't take four days off and stay in a hotel in California. It was very frustrating for me because if an addict gets clean and their family stays sick, they can relapse. The network has the money to offer these families airfare and hotel stays. It just made me angry. And then you hear about the Duck Dynasty guys getting so much money, come on!
VanVonderen: I don't really watch the show. I can't do it. To me, the most important part of the whole process is the pre-intervention, when we train the family on addiction and codependency. The show gives the impression that we summarize what's going on and then we write letters but these pre-intervention trainings go on for five to eight hours. That's the most important day. If it's done well, then we will get the answer we want the second day. When I'd watch the episodes, I'd get frustrated that some of the most important moments were edited out, so I had to stop watching because my role isn't to be an editor, it's to be an interventionist. I can't do what they do, I wouldn't even know how to condense 100 hours of footage into 45 minutes. The show is called Intervention, not Pre-Intervention.
Partland: The spectacular relapses were also devastating. Over the years, we'd get a call that an addict, after filming, was ready to go back to rehab. We'd fly all over the continent to pick up an addict who had decided to go back to treatment only to be stood up at airports and bus depots and practically every scenario you can think of. In some cases we'd pulled strings and placed addicts in several different treatment centers, and picked them up after relapses, and coordinated complicated travel and legal issues — helping to arrange for them to leave jurisdictions where they faced restrictions or charges, etc. — and taken them to treatment only to have them leave the next morning. Hard to describe how disappointing those moments were.
Sibitzke: Strangely, I never got sick of doing it. I loved it to the end. I remember going to work one day thinking I had the best job in the world — and this was about three years into it! It was psychological, emotional, and exhilarating. I would do it all over again.
Elaine Frontain Bryant: Intervention depicted addiction as something that everyone could relate to because of the emphasis on families. Entertainment moves in cycles. Times are hard right now, and Duck Dynasty is something easy to watch while you're chewing on popcorn. It doesn't weigh on you in the same way as Intervention — it's addictive but in another way. In a way, both Intervention and Duck Dynasty are about families. They are just in different places in their lives. That's a crude analysis of it, but that's a common thread.
Jaffe: It's a real shame that the show's over. Whenever that black card came on the episode that and said, "So-and-so has been sober since September," it offered hope to hopeless people. It lets people who think they are in the worst situation — like they've been to six rehabs and their life is falling apart — then they see somebody who's worse off, been kicked out of 12 rehabs and they get sober.
Seeley: I think now the world now knows what an intervention is and that they have the power to either support your recovery or your addiction. There's no in between, you can't be half pregnant.
VanVonderen: I think the show took the concept of intervention mainstream. It's now everywhere. They did an intervention on South Park — I get more emails about that than from getting an Emmy. I think that the show — I gotta take my time here 'cause I'm going to cry... [long pause] I think it changed the world. The show airs in Australia and South America. If I didn't work on the show, and I still worked in the field I worked in, I would be sad and angry that the show went away, because it mattered; and Duck Dynasty does not matter. The trials and tribulations of hillbilly prima donnas does not matter.
Grogan: I never found the show dark. People would ask me, am I drawn to dark material? But the show always struck me as incredibly hopeful and positive. No matter how many bad things you've done to yourself and to your family — if you want to change, you can.