When the trailer for the new season of the reality show Intervention dropped last month — promising a series focused entirely on the opioid crisis in Philadelphia — reaction from the city’s harm-reduction community was swift.
“Don’t really know where to start with what a dumpster fire this is," Jillian Bauer-Reese, an assistant professor at Temple University who teaches a journalism class on covering addiction, wrote on Twitter.
The long-running reality show, whose 20th season premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on A&E, long has courted controversy. The show follows people in active addiction through their daily lives, then stages an intervention with family members, stirring charges that it sensationalizes the lowest moments of a person’s life for TV ratings.
The latest trailer starts with a woman crying and calling herself a “junkie.” Scenes of people nodding out, overdosing, and injecting heroin in Kensington are set to dramatic music, interspersed with more uplifting moments from the titular interventions.
“It’s a reality TV show — it’s meant to be dramatic, and sensationalizes what is really a health condition,” said Brooke Feldman, an advocate who manages a medication-assisted treatment center in South Philadelphia. Feldman, who is in recovery from an opioid addiction, said she had been approached by producers seeking advice when the show first began filming in the city. She declined.
Those who work on Intervention say that their goal is to help people deep in addiction, while educating the public about the disease. When it premiered in 2005, it brought the concept of an intervention into the public consciousness like never before. It also meant big ratings for a network founded for more highbrow entertainments. It won an Emmy in 2009 for outstanding reality program.
In recent years, the show’s format has changed. It used to focus each episode on a different person with an addiction such as alcohol, gambling, opioids, or methamphetamine. This season is set in Kensington, the center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, and features nine people in addiction throughout the six episodes.
A similarly formatted season, on opioid use in Atlanta, aired last year.
“We’re looking for where the crisis is hitting the most,” said Ken Seeley, an interventionist on the show, who is in recovery from methamphetamine use. “The reason I’ve stayed with Intervention is that this is as real as it gets. The producers are just there documenting the truth. To see how devastating [Kensington] is is going to be an eye opener for the rest of the country."
Actually, plenty of other national TV shows and reporters have descended on Kensington. Television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz’s visit to a Kensington heroin encampment in 2017 still draws intense criticism from community members. He showed people injecting drugs and promised to help them. The encampment was cleared months later, scattering its occupants around the community.
“It’s like other media professionals that come from out of our community, [coming] into our community that show people’s faces on their worst day,” said Devin Reaves, the head of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition. (One interventionist on the show, Seeley said, is from the area.)
Reaves, who is in recovery himself, also declined to participate in Intervention. “It doesn’t feel like it’s there to help our individual community.” (Plus, he said, the Intervention trailer “called us ‘Philadelphia County.’ No one calls us Philadelphia County.”)
Showing the Kensington addiction crisis in isolation misses the real story, Feldman said.
“You can’t talk about the conditions in Kensington today without talking about the larger war on drugs and how these conditions were manufactured," she said, referencing decades of disinvestment and the mass incarceration that devastated the neighborhood during the crack epidemic. “It’s stigmatizing a community for being the symptom-bearer of these larger issues.”
Bauer-Reese said that much as she dislikes the show’s concept, she hopes it will at least show people of color in addiction. Though the opioid crisis is often portrayed as affecting mostly whites, nationally overdoses have been rising among nonwhites. “When I am in Kensington, which is often, I see whites, blacks, and Hispanics suffering equally," she said.
Seeley said that filming in Kensington had changed him.
“One part that really sticks out in my mind is seeing a 10-year-old playing soccer, kicking a ball around the street, and all the adults are just nodding out," he said. "I’ve never seen anything as bad in my entire career.”
In an interview posted on the A&E website, which he said was conducted years ago, he expressed concern that the overdose-reversing drug Narcan was being “abused.”
Now, Seeley says, after “seeing how bad it really gets, and seeing how many people’s lives [Narcan] really is saving,” he believes everyone should have access to the drug.
Once an abstinence-only adherent, he now says he favors supervised-injection sites: “If you could have a safe environment where people could come and get clean needles and talk to someone about treatment if they want when they’re hitting that low of a rock bottom, we might be able to save more lives.”
And he acknowledged that a TV show (which offers participants free treatment from rehab centers that get credit on the show for their philanthropy) can’t solve the financial burdens many face in treatment. He said he hoped the show inspires communities to “pull together and do something about this.”
Despite her problems with the show, Bauer-Reese, who’s in recovery herself, said she plans to watch it and discuss the issues it raises with her journalism students at Temple.
“If my moments in addiction were put on display, I don’t think I could recover from that. It comes back to the balance between what the public needs to know, and whether what you’re showing them is causing harm to the people that you’re, essentially, using as a symbol for a social issue,” she said. “Drawing this line is difficult."