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Critic's Notebook

Hooked

Do reality shows merely exploit addicts, or give them a shot at redemption?

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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Coming up . . .’’ the narrator of TLC’s new reality show “Addicted’’ intones before a commercial break.

We see a quick preview of Amanda, 31, sitting expectantly on a toilet in her parents’ home, flicking at a small needle, about to shoot heroin.

The commercial ends — someone’s making money — and we finally watch the segment in which Amanda shoots up, as promised, having conned her grandfather out of cash. Euphoric in the bathroom, her arm bloodied, she mumbles, “Dude, that’s what I’m talking about,’’ and falls back into semi-conscious tranquility.

It’s a stunning piece of footage in itself, and more so for having been heightened with reality-TV tricks: the eerie soundtrack, the uncomfortable close-ups of Amanda’s nodding eyes. Its luridness dwarfs that of an earlier scene, when Amanda rolls drunk on the carpet after having unscrewed the door of a locked refrigerator to get liquor. “He’s never let me down,’’ she says blearily, holding a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila up for the camera.

Poor Amanda. Seriously. Broken by her illness, denied custody of her daughter, on the verge of alienating her parents forever, unable to make a single responsible choice in her life — and then exploited by TV.

Of all the twisted unscripted programming that’s on TV, of all the Warholian exercises in D-list anomie and Ken-and-Barbie hot-tub melodrama, addiction reality shows are the worst. “Addicted,’’ which premieres Wednesday night on TLC, joins A&E’s “Intervention’’ and VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew’’ in a genre that recruits people in the throes of freefall self-destruction to participate in TV entertainment.

“Addicted’’ and “Intervention’’ are less stunt-driven than “Celebrity Rehab,’’ which tends to show semi-famous people flaunting their addictions and pathologies as career moves. But all three essentially milk alcoholics, crack smokers, pill-poppers, and gamblers for profit. These shows may be about detox and rehab, but they keep their focus with almost fetishistic intensity on the juicier, audience-grabbing material: the falling-down drunkenness, the drooling junkies, the passed-out huffers.

OK, so reality TV uses and exploits people. Ten years into the post-“Survivor’’ reality surge, that’s very old news indeed. These days, cognizant people who agree to be on reality TV generally know that they’re heading into heavy distortion — that the scenes will be edited and reordered, that they will be reduced to good or bad characters, that the emphasis will be on the emotional explosions. Technically, reality TV producers don’t script episodes, but we all know they impose narrative arcs onto footage to meet the audience’s hunger for a good story. When the casts of shows such as “The Bachelor’’ complain about how they appear in the final product, after having pursued a reality TV gig in the first place, they’re being disingenuous.

But an addict who is out of control signing away rights? That’s sketchy, to say the least. What has troubled me since “Intervention’’ premiered in 2005 is the conspicuous ethical hiccup by the producers, the networks, and even Emmy voters, who gave “Intervention’’ the 2009 prize for outstanding reality show. Does anyone truly think that people lost in addiction are clear-thinking enough to choose whether to put their stories on TV for public consumption? Is an addict hitting his bottom in the position to sign away images of himself hitting his bottom?

Twenty years ago, a now-sober friend with a serious drinking problem called me at 2 in the morning, loaded and irrationally committed to the belief that someone he was dating was sleeping with one of his friends. I told him I knew it wasn’t true, but he couldn’t hear a word I said and stormed off to catch the lovers and embarrass himself. The thought of him signing a TV contract that night, or the next morning, or the week before — it’s chilling.

The “Addicted’’ footage of Amanda will shadow her for the rest of her life. She may like that idea in the future, if it’s a sober one — a permanent record of her misery, there as a cautionary tale if she starts to romanticize her old daze. Gina, a subject of a 2006 “Intervention,’’ says as much in a follow-up video on aetv.com: “Seeing myself in that state gives me a focal point of where I never want to go back to.’’

But Amanda also may not want those scenes out there, on DVD for her children and grandchildren, her future bosses, and her friends. She may regret having given up her privacy at a time when she was profoundly under the influence. So many people I know caution their friends and their children to be responsible about putting photos and information on the Internet that may come back to bite them in the future. This is the same situation, magnified.

Some recovery professionals and friends in recovery have told me they think these shows prey on people “in a vulnerable and precarious state,’’ as one sober friend in recovery put it. They also go against the Alcoholics Anonymous principle of anonymity, he noted. And if humility is an important element in recovery, finding yourself at the center of a TV production certainly contradicts that state of mind.

That same friend, who works with addicts in New England and prefers to maintain his anonymity in keeping with his recovery program, notes that the editing of TV’s intervention and rehab sequences makes getting clean and sober look less than the heroic and constant struggle it is. “Reducing this process in the genre of a reality show,’’ he says, “really trivializes all the many facets of the recovery process.’’

But there are many, many supporters who feel that the rehab and intervention series give addicts another chance to save themselves. “Intervention’’ and “Addicted,’’ which focuses on the cases of interventionist Kristina Wandzilak — a former addict herself — feature addicts whose desperate families will do anything, including going on TV, to rescue their loved ones. The shoddy intervention staged for the late actor Corey Haim on “The Two Coreys’’ didn’t work, but the success stories do abound, as you can see in the follow-up videos at aetv.com.

Supporters also say that “Intervention’’ offers the promise of help to viewers, those who may be consciously or subconsciously contemplating recovery. A show such as “Addicted’’ may inspire them to get treatment, providing them with a dark mirror of their own behavior.

“The positive piece,’’ as Marie Pierre-Victor of the behavioral health department at Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center, says, “is that these shows can raise awareness about addiction issues and treatment options. They show people that they can get into treatment programs and that they work.’’

If it takes the promise of going on TV to get a person on track, so be it, says social worker Gayle Bartley, who specializes in addiction at Codman. “You have to know that these people have had multiple failures in trying to get and stay clean,’’ she says. “Part of them is desperate enough to try to do something else, and that desperation and that energy can get transformed into . . . something that will last forever. And knowing that the tape of them will last forever — for some people that’s enough to get them to stay clean, because they never want to look like that again.’’

Bartley also points out that having those images out there — online, on TV, on DVD — isn’t necessarily a disaster.

“These days, it’s no longer as much of a stigma, especially celebrity-wise,’’ she says. “As far as spinning that to those who would be employing them, it’s, This is where I was and I’ve come through it, and here I am now. This is not going to be a concern again. It’s owning up and taking responsibility in one way, versus continuing to hide it.’’

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.