Do we have a craving for addiction TV?
Forget aspiring singers, jealous roommates, D-list celebrities and suburban housewives. The hottest trend in reality television is addicts who abuse drugs, alcohol and, ultimately, themselves.
Two competing shows turn the cameras on the dark corners of the American dream, taking a hard, unvarnished look at drug and alcohol addicts.
Last week HBO debuted its 14-part series, "Addiction," which includes the work of many highly respected documentary filmmakers, including Albert Maysles ("Gimme Shelter"), Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight"), and D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ("The War Room").
And on Friday, the third season of "Intervention" premiered on A&E, with an episode profiling a young drummer hooked on OxyContin whose family stages an intervention to get him into treatment. At his low point, he is shooting up 15 times a day, and his mood swings wildly from desperation to aggression.
"Addiction" grew out of HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins' own frustrating struggle to help her son David cope with a decade-long battle with alcohol and cocaine. "It was Sheila's hunch from her personal experience that there were developments and advancements in treatment," HBO producer John Hoffman told ABCNEWS.com. "We spent a year doing research, and we came away with the conclusion that with brain-imaging science, there have been enormous leaps forward in the understanding of how alcohol works."
"Addiction" focuses on treatment and recovery in an effort to show that addiction is a treatable brain disease. "Intervention" functions more as a classic reality show in which the addict's crisis makes up the crux of the program. Still, both shows are less reality TV than harsh reality TV. Unlike the rest of the genre, which focuses on real people engaged in competitions, these shows delve into the dark side of reality, with real people indulging their worst instincts. The camera hovers as addicts indulge their cravings: shooting and snorting as they hit rock bottom. The results are graphic and shocking -- painful to watch, but impossible to ignore.
Medical professionals give the programs mixed reviews. "I think the good thing about both of these programs is that they give people hope, that good outcomes can happen when people have addictions," said Michael Miller, president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, who believes that interventions can be effective as long as they're followed by a combination of behavioral and medical treatment. "They don't give the impression that recovery is easy or easily obtainable."
But Jake Epperly, who runs the New Hope Recovery Center in Chicago, said that it can be a mistake to put addicts on television. "It's just my own philosophy that it's a misuse of patients to do that," he said. "It's not always good for them, because you're dealing with people with low self-esteem, egomaniacs with low self-esteem."
Epperly was approached by "Intervention" producers who wanted to feature his treatment center, but he turned them down. "If I did that," he said, "I would feel like I was exploiting the patient for my own financial gain, to help market my center."
Robert Sharenow, senior vice president of nonfiction and alternative programming at A&E, disagrees. "This is not a sleazy tabloid show but a very sensitive, artfully rendered look at addiction," he said. "Reality TV unjustly gets a bad name but the reality moniker fits an array of programs."
In the end, these programs end up revealing plenty about our own state of mind and our own needs.
"This just in from pseudoscience: Addiction documentaries contain an element that excites dopamine receptors, shuts down the frontal lobe and causes intense cravings," wrote The New York Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan in her review of the show.
And that urge to watch is fueled by the needs of lonely viewers, adrift in a disconnected society.
"The rise of reality TV is symptomatic of the loss of real connection and intimacy in our lives, the craving for real human contact," said Glenn Sparks, a professor of communications at Purdue University, who has written about media addiction. "These addiction shows present possible scenarios that we can become attached to -- one of the reasons that people get involved with other people is that there are problems to address and to solve.
"There's an irony," said Sparks, "in the fact that these shows are presenting themselves in a way that people could get addicted to them."