“How can something be so euphoric and good and be so terrible?”
The story of former “Inside Edition” senior correspondent Rick Kirkman is one of addiction and its debilitating impact on every aspect of life. While such a sentiment may seem anything but unique in a world where reality TV willfully puts addicts on the small screen so a hubristic American public can laugh at their misfortunes from afar instead of putting a mirror on themselves to understand where their own lives have gone astray, Michael Cain and Matt Radecki’s documentary TV Junkie will prove you wrong. Kirkman did what we’re too self-conscious to do: he literally recorded every waking minute, documenting over 3000 hours of his life after the age of fourteen. So, instead of voiceovers and friends recalling the circumstances of his tragic fall from grace, we watch as it unfolds.
Cain and Redecki’s team sifted through this staggering pile of tapes to find the moments that illustrate crack cocaine’s hold on Kirkman. From his wild, party lifestyle while traveling the world for work showing a new girl in his bed each night to the moments of clarity that come with discovering he’s going to be a dad, what plays onscreen is raw, unadulterated reality. Every second that wasn’t filmed by either he or his ex-wife Tammie is culled from aired news reports, television show appearances, and behind the scenes moments on the job—nothing is staged. Besides Cain and Redecki editing everything together with minimal expository captioning to set some scenes, this is for all intents and purposes a cinematic autobiography. And its level of intimacy will make you both uncomfortable and intrigued.
It’s not surprising to learn the film has waited seven years before becoming available for mass consumption. A Special Jury Prize winner at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, TV Junkie earned airtime on HBO the next year before eventually finding its way into the classroom as an educational tool in 2008. For all those kids desensitized enough to simply roll their eyes at the gruesome, emotionally visceral subject matter of fictions like Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, Kirkman’s message should prove powerful enough to at least flirt with scaring them straight. Uncensored and unrelenting, it pushed Tammie into filing an injunction—whether to protect her children or seek monetary compensation could be debated by its verbiage—and can’t help but force its audiences to assume the worst possible ending is on its way.
Far from a biographical expose full of conjecture and hypotheses, we watch Kirkman wrestle with his soul again and again under his own volition. Long takes of him finding it impossible to justify his actions are followed by the next morning’s lethargy and depression. The camera catches his anger, frustration, tears, and self-loathing—showing his willingness to self-destruct on the road despite the love of a wife and two sons relying on him back home. His backslides inevitably become more frequent as the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to starts to implode. And the horrendous actions of a desperate man oceans from his family evolve into nightly hometown excursions mere hours after putting little Ricky and Dusty to bed. No matter how selfish, smug, or ungrateful Rick ultimately appears, the pain underneath cannot be ignored.
It’s easy for someone without firsthand experience of addiction to watch this never-ending cycle onscreen and hate Rick for his ego or lose respect in Tammie for her naivety in constantly letting him back into her life, but anyone who has can tell you it’s not that simple. Cain and Radecki do look to past details like the broken home of Kirkman’s youth as his father took three tours in Vietnam and his mother the numbing salvation of Valium, but they never try to justify his troubles in a way that subverts the personal responsibility he has towards his own destruction. We’ve all been part of traumatizing experiences so to dismiss what’s onscreen as a product of his parents is a disservice when you realize he’s providing an even worse environment for his own children.
TV Junkie wears its authenticity on its sleeve through heavily tracked video recordings and abrupt cuts courtesy of the camcorder’s lack of finesse, but that’s part of its impact. With an unavoidable sense of repetition necessary to understand the situation’s futility, deplorable thoughts of murder and suicide pair with scenes of domestic abuse and police intervention to crush you. It’s true what many say regarding the need to hit rock bottom before righting the ship, but that process isn’t without collateral damage as we see with Tammie, Ricky, and Dusty. Our initial indifference to Kirkman’s early playboy days will turn to pity during introspective confessions about his helplessness as a father and eventually grow into hate by the time all sense disappears. We watch his descent not for entertainment, but for recognition and comprehension instead.