There have been many shows and films that try and convey the realities of substance abuse. In Hollywood blockbusters ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘Flight’, the subjects are affluent men—the former concerns a writer, the latter a pilot—who go on drinking binges and devolve into creatures of abysmal character. In ‘Requiem for a Dream’, friendships, family ties, and partiality to one's limbs are severed (both metaphorically and physically) in a star-studded portrayal of what heroin and methamphetamine addiction can do to the human body and mind—not to mention the soul. However, despite the glitz and glam of Hollywood-ized exaggeration and dramaturgy, the reality of substance abuse addiction continues to be one of the most disturbing diseases that any person can bear witness to. For proof, one need look no further than Michael Cain and Matt Radecki’s highly seminal documentary-reality show hybrid, ‘TV Junkie.’
At the age of 14, Rick Kirkham received a video camera that would set him down his life’s course with a career in news reporting. As the years wore on, Rick would go from amateur filmmaker to school news reporter, to on-site news coverage of "real world" events, to criminal underworld reporting. It would be the latter that, during a drug bust, Rick would be introduced to crack cocaine and its debilitating effects. All the while, he continues making video diaries; we are introduced to a man who grabs life by the horns, jumps in feet first, asks questions later. And when it begins to all be a “little much”, no problem! He finds that taking a hit mellows things out. But as any current or former drug user will tell you, addiction isn’t something that happens overnight, and the more Rick uses crack cocaine (among other narcotics) to escape the more he begins to perceive life through a foggy lens, until before he knows it he suddenly can’t perform regular tasks without putting on those goggles. Using has become as pervasive as breathing.
With over 3,000 hours of footage to splice—much of it from his diaries, but also included is archival footage of his time at CBS’ Inside Edition and assorted other networks—it’s actually quite amazing what the filmmakers were able to put together: a portrait of a man, a father, a husband. An addict. Within twelve minutes of the film, Rick is submitted to his first substance abuse control center at HOAG Hospital in Newport. But if addiction isn’t an overnight process, then ‘TV Junkie’ shows that recovery is just as delicate a notion. After being discharged it isn’t long until Rick is using again. The film continues like this for a while, and we begin to see a pattern that may be familiar especially to those who have witnessed people in recovery or abusing drugs (or, really, any addiction): Rick loses his job as an IE reporter because of his constant binging and taking leave from work (his bosses were also the ones that helped get him into HOAG the first time around, so they knew the situation). From there, the tapes take on a sort of schizophrenic back and forth, a Jekyll and Hyde display of guilt, grief, and gall, with equal parts lucidity and lunacy.
Perhaps what viewers may find most striking about ‘TV Junkie’ is not the substance abuse itself, but the despair you feel on the part of his friends and family. Throughout the film, Rick’s wife Tammie is subject to abuse both physical and verbal, and opts to try and keep the family together rather than divorce her husband. In one particularly crushing scene, the cameras are turned on after what was apparently a pretty brutal beating from Rick to his wife, in front of their children. Intermixed audio blares through the speakers like a hellish requiem: his children’s screams and crying and Tammie’s attempts to try to talk on the phone with her father and the police, all while Rick surgically attempts to mend the situation with manipulation, cajoling, and, when the cops finally do arrive, calm cooperation. It only gets worse from there. Not too long after this segment, a video diary emerges of Rick talking about how he’d just gotten back from driving up to where his parents lived, a rifle and two canisters of gasoline in the backseat. Fortunately, Rick tells us he couldn’t bring himself to kill the man he called “father” that he so hated (the reason is never really made clear, but seemed to have a lot to do, as with everything else in the film, with Rick’s own mistakes), but the impact nonetheless hits us like a stone: Rick has crossed a line into behavior that we can no longer predict.
Although the film does end on a positive note—Rick is shown speaking at a high school graduation about his experience as a substance abuser, and how that affected his life—it’s important to know going into ‘TV Junkie’ that we're not talking about some circuitous Lifetime special where everyone is happy in the end. The focus of the film is mainly on the in-the-moment-ness of addiction and, more importantly, what that looks like from the point-of-view of both user and third party (anyone watching the tapes). It’s also a very candid portrayal; everything we see is completely 100% true to form, and that includes the drug use itself. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it says: “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputation, but knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it.” ‘TV Junkie’ physically manifests this idea in a scene where the filmmakers were able to splice together a split-screen where Rick, in New York, and Tammie, at their home, are filming themselves and talking on the phone simultaneously. Rick tells Tammie “for the record” how much he loves her and their child, but a jaded Tammie tells Rick that she doesn’t believe him because the cameras are on. After they hang up, Rick immediately goes out and buys drugs.
‘TV Junkie’ is a call-to-arms for abusers, an educational check-list of “do nots” for those of us not privy to the highs and lows of illicit substances, and what would surely be an emotional roller-coaster for those in recovery.
Because this version of ‘TV Junkie’ was streamed via iTunes, there are no special features to be reviewed.
‘TV Junkie’ is unrated, but I would if it were to go through the MPAA it would probably be given a borderline PG-13/R rating (it is pretty educational, after all), for nudity, adult themes, language, and drug use.
‘TV Junkie’ is available on the following streaming platforms:
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