Last night’s pilot for AMC’s The Killing meditated incisively on the pain of someone losing a child to a violent crime. On A&E’s series premiere of Relapse—brought to us, naturally, by the team behind the same network’s Intervention—we’re introduced to James, a father prematurely grieving for his meth-addicted 28-year-old daughter Brooke, who’s alive but not well. The Oregonian college dropout was on the cusp of a civil-engineering degree, but after 10 years of meth abuse, the drug has finally necessitated all her time and attention. It's also led to an eight-month estrangement from her father, who’s meeting with former addict and sober coach Patty Powers. It’s a desperate attempt by James to save Brooke’s life and to prevent himself from either considering his child good as dead or slowly watching her die.
LIke Intervention (and Hoarders as well, though that show is more about compulsion than the disease of addiction), Relapse weaves between two narratives, both of which begin at a point of no return for an individual in need of help. For tonight's debut, their cameras followed Brooke during a week-long stay with Patty, while another crew spent several days documenting sober coach Seth Jaffe’s battle to keep Detroit fireman David from drinking and losing his family for good.
For ease of reference, picture Intervention, but picture it as if the actual intervening was staged from each episode’s outset and instead of a social worker and tearful family circle, someone closer to a Made coach/bounty hunter was tagging along with the addicts like a smothering parole officer. A crucial distinction is that we never really learn about the subjects’ past, or discover the moment that led them to needles or a bottle of rum. This show, unlike the ones it’s been spun off from, is simply about getting somebody up from rock bottom long enough to keep them alive.
This slightly less instructive, viewer-centric approach can mess with your sense of who to be sympathetic toward at times, but as Relapse wears on, it’s clear that the individuals at each episode's center are at such a crisis point that some kind of acute, Scared Straight-style final warning can’t hurt. And what always seems to click about this vein of reality drama is that, no matter how subtly explored each person’s story may or may not be, one of the two journeys will strike a chord with nearly 100 percent of the audience.
For me personally, Brooke’s cumulative half hour was far less compelling from a story standpoint, even if she and James were both easy to root for on a purely human level. David, a much more demonstrable addict (he’s filmed punching several holes in walls and other objects), is also fighting for his wife and kids, making it nearly impossible to create an atmosphere around Brooke’s situation with comparably heightened stakes or raw tension. David’s coach, Seth, is also a vastly more dynamic on-screen character, embodying both the terrifying “before” of a former junkie-brawler and his softer, 12-stepped “after” counterpart. He and David’s encounters are riveting, with Seth teetering between tough love and proud enthusiasm, while David ruptures emotionally in nearly every scene, reacting to the slightest offense or intrusion as if he were being stabbed with 100 knives.
Patty and Brooke, on the other hand, have a slightly less dramatic series of interactions, judging by the footage included. Even she and her father’s reconciliation seems strangely tidy, and the enormity of what's being repaired never quite resonates. Put most succinctly, David and Seth’s work together makes for heartbreaking, visceral television, while Patty and Brooke’s segment indicates a lack of revelatory footage or volatility for its editors to manipulate.
As a given, evaluating the relative substance of two hurting, diseased people and how their behavior affects others in any personal or judgmental way is ridiculous. Likewise, weighing the purpose or meaningful intent of programming like Relapse versus its über-formattable ratings appeal can be debated for an hour itself. Held exclusively against the reliably watchable and at least generally tasteful, emotional standard of its predecessors, Relapse should fit right into the A&E schedule. And if its upcoming episodes find more explosiveness between coach and addict as they did with Seth and David, the series may even find its own distinguished viewership.
- I couldn’t really find the room to delve into this, but David’s wife was absolutely heartbreaking to watch. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person wondering about her and their sons’ well-being under—past and future—sharing a home with David.
- Did not see Seth actually going through with the 911 call.
- That dude is generally just badass. Like Walter White with a Warriors pedigree.
- Lots of somber quotes in this one, though Brooke lamenting that, “When I die, I’m gonna be left thinking that my life was just a waste” tends to stick out most achingly in my mind.
- Without being mean, it warrants mentioning that the effects of constant meth use on Brooke’s appearance are fairly shocking, and I’m always amazed with how brave participants in these shows are for allowing such an unflinching glimpse, no matter how hugely therapeutic their appearance—and watching it back for themselves—can be.
- I’m very curious to meet the other two coaches, Doug and Gwen, in the coming weeks. Smart strategy on A&E’s part to spread their appearances out as one way of maintaining post-premiere curiosity.
- I actually found this review fairly difficult to write. It’s a very serious subject matter and one I have my own connections to, and it’s also a fine line between analyzing a show about addicts and casually watching something like Relapse to feel superior and pass judgment on people in a situation that's swallowed them whole. So I’m very curious to hear what people have to say. And please, be nice.