It’s difficult to portray addicts on television. They are often the horrible parent, the schemer, the thief, or the good-time Charlie--which is to say that they resemble real, breathing people about as much as the cast of “The Hills” does. “The Wire” perhaps had the most realistic take on the struggle itself through the eminently compelling Bubbles. But, for every one of him, there seem to be dozens of carefree addicts like Patsy and Edina from “Absolutely Fabulous” (funny though they are) or histrionic drinkers like Sue Ellen from “Dallas” or Bree from “Desperate Housewives.” And rarely do we see the complete arc of the addict, let alone the sober life millions of Americans quietly work very hard at maintaining. (“NYPD Blue” and “The West Wing” come to mind as the rare shows that address sobriety very well.)
So, with its new show “The Cleaner”--coming off the surprise success of the morally complicated and utterly riveting “Intervention” series--A&E seems poised to advance the complex lives of everyday addicts in a way no single station ever has. Starring Benjamin Bratt, “The Cleaner” is based loosely on the experiences of co-executive producer Warren Boyd, a sober drug addict and alcoholic as well as a substance abuse counselor for nearly 20 years. The show focuses on a band of misfits led by William Banks (Bratt), who believes he has a divine mission to get people clean by staging “extreme interventions.” In other words, “The Cleaner” is a kind of Fantastic Four for addicts.
And, for the most part, “The Cleaner” nicely depicts the difficulties of life after the grizzly climb out of addiction. Bratt plays Banks with a kind of knowing wisdom essential to the success of the character. It is a fitting postscript to an early career-making performance in Piñero, in which Bratt played the troubled and addicted poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. The conceit of “The Cleaner” is that Banks’s team will go to great lengths (“any means necessary”) to get people into treatment, from kidnapping a gambling addict and throwing her into the back of a van, to combing the streets of Los Angeles looking for one particular teen meth head. And, oddly, it is this aspect of the show that is weakest. Setting up intricate sting operations to abduct people who aren’t in hiding or, for that matter, particularly nimble isn’t very compelling. A lot of the show plays like a gritty police procedural, when in fact it’s essentially just a group of people asking around, “You seen this kid?” Never mind that the team uses one tweaker to find another, begging the question: Why not save both? But then Banks has only been asked to help the one kid, the one whose family is ready to spring for rehab. Meanwhile, the other kid--the one who perhaps has no one looking out for him--is left to his own devices back on the street.
Where “The Cleaner” shines is in its depiction of Banks’s less “exciting” moments. The program is never more realistic than when it shows the toll Banks’s own addiction has had on his family and the toll his efforts to now save others continues to have on them. He is as fallible as he is laudable. Add this to his ongoing battle with cigarettes, his suspicions of his friend’s sobriety, his references to meetings, and his quirky relationship with God, and you’ve got a thoroughly interesting character. Unfortunately, he’s the only one. Banks’s wife looks more like a shop girl than the world-weary wife of an addict and mother of two (including a teenager), and the rest of the cast seems to be more comic relief than meaningful people who drive the plot forward. In fact, the best non-Bratt character, a depressive friend obsessed with working out, dies in the first episode. And then there’s the writing, which has a hackneyed feel to it (“We’re dealing with life and death here, people!”) along with a didacticism that can be totally exasperating (in one scene, Banks tries to convey the seriousness of his mission by telling his crew that there’s a “75 percent rate of relapse here” and a “27 percent chance of death”--while he’s administering a life-saving shot to an over-dosing girl). Though one uncharacteristically subtle moment of “The Cleaner” did give me hope for the program: In the very last shot of the first episode, we see Banks and his wife say a warm goodnight before retiring to separate bedrooms. Without over-explaining anything, this melancholy allusion to the deep hurt that still penetrates the marriage is the most poignant and even relatable scene in the episode.
Every day, former users are quietly making the kind of difference that A&E is trying to portray in William Banks: the sponsor who calls the struggling addict every hour, the sober lawyer who goes to every arraignment of every addict, the sober friend who leaves his family in the middle of the night to keep a buddy from relapsing. In that sense, A&E is on to something: These are real heroes with dramatic narratives just waiting to be mined. Frankly, I just wish someone wrote them a better show.
Sacha Zimmerman is the Special Online Projects Manager for The New Republic.