Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”

Original Airdate: August 21st, 2011 on VH1

It’s time to consider another installment of that much-maligned genre: reality TV. Is there any better evidence that reality TV is far from monolithic than the stark contrast between this show and Comic Book Men? And that’s to say nothing of popular game show/reality TV hybrids like Top Chef.

In my entry on Men, I classified the non-game show variety of reality TV as “following around questionable celebrities,” and while that’s certainly true here it also feels rather uncharitable. No one wants to have their rehab experience televised and if your straits are sufficiently dire as to require drying out on national TV, chances are you need to leverage the slight tinge of bold associated with your name into a modest sum of money and exposure. However, this season’s cast includes one figure whose fame has always completely baffled me, and that would be Ms. Amy Fisher. 

Early in this episode, each of the people involved are given a helpful caption with their name and claim to fame, and the title given to Fisher is “tabloid celebrity.” Okay, that’s technically accurate, but one does not simply walk into tabloid celebrity. I guess it would be a little weird if the caption read “attempted murderess,” eh? For the uninitiated, Fisher was the subject of a national media firestorm when, at the age of 17, she shot her lover’s wife in the face. Was her lover anyone famous? No, he was a Long Island-based mechanic. Was her victim? Also no. And yet somehow this was enough of a story that an equally confused New York Times reporter remarked in 1999, on the occasion of Fisher’s release from prison, that his was the 233rd article in the paper of record about the sordid affair.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but doesn’t this kind of thing happen all the time? I’m sure every day somewhere in the world someone is plotting to kill the unsuspecting spouse of the person they’re having an affair with, or to kill the person that’s cheating on them, or to kill the spouse preventing them from living happily ever after with a strung-out teenager, or whatever. Adultery mixed with murder is, as Mrs. Potts would say, a tale as old as time. If it were the solution to a murder mystery on television, I’d be pissed off and bored, even if it is true to life. So why did we care about the l’affaire de Buttafouco so goddamned much? Why were there three made-for-TV movies aired on all three of the major broadcast networks?

Theories offered include: the age difference between Fisher and Mr. Buttafouco, it’s fun to say “Buttafouco,” sociopaths like Mr. Buttafouco are intrinsically interesting, the added tawdriness of Fisher’s underage prostitution, the pathos of the paralysis of the blameless Ms. Buttafouco or the fact that this whole thing happened in Long Island, in close proximity to the wake of media vultures circling New York City. Perhaps if all this shit went down in Dubuque we’d never have heard of her and Fisher wouldn’t be darkening the door of the Pasadena Recovery Center. None of these theories are really all that persuasive on their own, but perhaps when taken together they amount to something. Or perhaps not.

Strengths

  • Intimate. The conventional wisdom about reality TV is that it isn’t reality and it barely qualifies as TV. It’s true that with many standard-bearers of the genre I’d be entirely comfortable classifying them as “reality-adjacent.” I’m sure Caitlyn Jenner’s transitioning led to many conversations and conflicts amongst the Kardashians, but I feel equally sure that there is not a one-to-one correspondence to those actual conversations and conflicts and the ones that we saw play out on television. Some shows take this further, and like Marco Polo, they do violence to actual events in order to create a more satisfying narrative. The creators of Kitchen Nightmares evidently think viewers want to see all the problems affecting a failing restaurant heaped on the shoulders of a likely scapegoat rather than a clear-eyed assessment of a variety of factors creating a confluence of failure in a wintry economic climate. But Rehab bucks these conventions. I feel like it’s awfully hard to fake teary therapy breakthroughs, and when Michael Lohan collapses into sobs about how broken he feels inside and how he feels like a disgrace to his family, it feels raw and truly real. This show is startling and remarkable, because no one wants to be seen broken and at the bottom and therapy, of all places, is an arena that most people would want to keep top secret. I was prepared for this to be as seedy and tawdry as a TV movie entitled Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story, but it was actually a rare privilege to be able to peer into real moments that would otherwise be totally private and inaccessible. This is an experience that reality TV is always offering but seldom delivering.
  • Dr. Drew. The people that go on TV and the radio calling themselves “doctor” frequently offer questionable advice and equally questionable medical credentials. Much as with Gordon Ramsey, the viewer is left to wonder whether if the “expert” is sufficiently laden with conflicts of interest to no longer be capable of offering useful expertise. Dr. Drew Pinsky has been doctorin’ it up in the public eye since 1984, when he made his first appearance on the radio show Loveline as a fourth-year medical student. This doesn’t mean that Pinsky is infallible–far from it. From what I can tell, there are two critical flaws to the work that he does on Rehab and in his other media properties. By their very nature, they’re exploitative. At the start of this season, Fisher bristles at the prospect of receiving treatment at Pasadena Recovery Center, because she’s had “cameras shoved in [her] face” since she was a kid. If your patient is someone reeling from the trauma of intense, unkind media scrutiny, perhaps it’s an additional risk factor to put her on a fucking reality show? Pinsky rationalizes this by saying that without compromising the patient’s treatment in this way, he could never get his messages out about addiction in the first place. Pinsky’s second major failing is equally serious, but it’s far from unique or unusual even among non-televised medical practitioners: reliance on 12-step programs. Even more perplexing, Pinsky seems to have some sort of problem with proven maintenance drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which is where we get into legitimately dangerous malpractice territory as opposed to widespread if ignorant treatment methods like 12-step. (If I had seen evidence of the former on the episode that I watched he wouldn’t be in the positive column.) So Dr. Drew may epitomize everything that’s wrong with the rehab industry in this country, but his practices are in line with generally accepted medical wisdom and he’s not an asshole trying to suck all the air out of the room abusing his patients in the name of tough love, which already has him 10,000 miles ahead of Drs. Phil and Oz. After researching him and American rehab in general, I’d think twice about recommending that anyone I love go to a rehab center that does nothing but AA, but he didn’t want to make me throw my shoe at the TV, and that’s the quality we strive for here at Oryx & Cake Boss. In all seriousness, Pinsky comes off as genuinely caring and reasonably intelligent and given the low standard of public intellectualism around medicine on TV, I’m willing to damn him with the faint praise seen above. I’m more sympathetic to Pinsky around the issue that led him to stop making the show. He stepped down due to exasperation at constant public criticism after his patients succumbed to their addictions. Sure, he leans heavily on ineffective 12-step programs, but I’m willing to bet 99% of the other doctors in your insurance network will lean on them as well. Sure, he puts traumatized, suffering people on television, but it’s not like that’s being done without the patient’s consent. Pinsky is a symptom of a much larger problem, and that’s an American criminal justice system that turns people with an illness into felons and an American health care system that prioritizes profit over patients. Hacks like Phil and Oz compound the problems with emotional abuse and snake oil, but Pinsky seems to be doing his genuine best. Even if he were using best practices–even if it were possible to do that while actively opposed by the criminal justice system, the healthcare industry and the media–that’s still no guarantee that patients wouldn’t die or relapse. When they leave his clinic, they’re no longer in his care and are free to make their own decisions. It’s got to be tremendously painful to see patients you care about lose the fight against addiction. It can only be worse when everyone rushes to blame you for their mistakes, even if one of their mistakes was agreeing to be a part of your three-ring circus in the first place.
  • Empathy-building. I suppose this strength depends heavily on the mindset of the viewer, but Rehab does its best to discourage your impulse to be shitty and judgmental. Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities. Some of these folks have a very tenuous claim on celebrity–on one end of the spectrum you have 1980s baseball superstar Dwight Gooden, and on the other hand you have Jessica Kiper, third place contestant in season 17 of Survivor and 20th place contestant in season 20. The celebrities are obviously at a low point in their lives, and it’s easy to imagine people snickering as Michael Lohan storms out of the rehab to have a screaming match in the parking lot with his now wife Kate Major. It’s also easy to imagine the transition between derisive judgment and angry judgment. Most people who go through rehab aren’t lucky enough to do it in a posh facility in Pasadena, complete with equine therapy. It’s always easy for people sitting at home on the couch to throw icy shade over someone else’s bad decisions and delusions. On the other hand, Rehab is just as likely to have the opposite effect. The fact that these people are united by a brief moment in the spotlight fades into the background and you begin to see what truly unites them is a deep well of pain and suffering. You see them making a sincere and earnest effort to confront their problems, and a quick journey to Wikipedia tells you that some will fail. One particularly depressing example has the staff of the rehab center insisting to Lohan that unless he addresses his anger issues in tandem with his alcoholism, he’ll hit Kate Major and go to jail for domestic violence. In return, he insists that this won’t happen, despite the fact that he’s nearly gotten arrested twice before for domestic violence. Wikipedia: “On October 25th, 2011, Lohan was arrested in a suspected domestic violence incident in Tampa, Florida, involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate Major.” And yet despite the fact that he’s a hurricane of poison tearing his family’s life apart, and despite the fact that an abusive partner is the last person in the universe that I’d have any sympathy or pity for, Rehab brings me closer than I’d ever be likely to come otherwise. Seeing the pain on his face as he struggles to reckon with the mess he’s made of his life is difficult, even if his choices were his own. If he were a fictional character, I’d most likely look on him more harshly, but knowing that he’s a real person trying to be better makes it all the more painful. The show becomes sadder when you realize how it’s impossible to try and heal the pain on display in 28 days, and how focusing solely on addiction is in some cases trying to remodel the bathroom of a house collapsing into a sinkhole. An inherent failure of mental health care in our society is that it can only address itself to the individual, even when the individual’s pathologized response is completely reasonable. Bai Ling (The Crow) tells of her miserable childhood enlisted as an entertainer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, plied with alcohol, raped by officers and impregnated all before making it out of her teens. Jesus, who wouldn’t self-medicate in that situation? As hard as Sean Young (Blade Runner) is trying to get sober, she’s going straight home to a husband who’s also a raging alcoholic. Even though he makes a commitment to try and dry out for her sake, it’s hard to feel very optimistic. And these are struggles just one level above the personal. It’s hardly shocking that Jeremy Jackson (Baywatch) got addicted to steroids and believes that all of his value and self-worth is tied to appearance. He works in an industry that ties the value and worth of its workers to appearance. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Kiper, Ling and Young rue the fact that their addictions got in the way of their careers, but Hollywood treats young women as disposable flavors of the month anyway, while we’re still being subjected to Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon decades into their careers. Add that to the fact that Ling is a woman of color in an industry that almost never casts women of color in starring roles in major films and it seems particularly hopeless to imagine that booming careers would have been right around the corner, if only.

Weaknesses

  • Sentimental. It was fortunate that this was the episode I watched, since the main focus was the celebrities reading letters they wrote to their addictions and then throwing them into a fire as a purgative exercise. To accompany their recitations, the producers showed us clips recapping their “arc” during their stay at the center. This could have been cheesy, but it was useful in putting a capstone on their rehab experience, for good or for bad. What was entirely unnecessary, however, was the sappy montage at the end of the episode, set to the strains of some medium-beige VH1 generic adult contemporary sludge. Especially gratuitous is the fact that the montage includes a clip of Dwight Gooden tearfully reading his letter that aired ten minutes earlier. The first 15 minutes of the episode feature an interlude where Pinsky brings in three previous celebrity patients to offer guidance and wisdom about what happens when you leave rehab. This could have been interesting and valuable, but what happens instead is that most of the time slotted for these celebrities is showing clips of their time at the center, complete with highs and lows. Receiving special attention is Tiger Woods mistress Rachel Uchitel, whose pain stems from losing her fiance on 9/11. We see an extended sequence of her own purgative-letter-writing experience from Season 4, complete with throwing said letter into the middle of a lake. What does this have to do with her post-rehab experience? Oh, absolutely nothing. Does it teach any of the assembled rehab participants anything? Nope. Why is it here? To make you cry. This show already has enough of a legitimate claim to pathos without trying to milk it like an aging Guernsey.

Motivation: These people are quite literally fighting for survival, and sadly, the history of the show has taught us that there are some who won’t win.

Final Episode Judgment: Provided you can look past Pinsky’s ineffectual if mainstream addiction treatment philosophy and are willing to keep a box of tissues handy, Rehab (or at least this episode) is worth watching if inessential. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: As you know, I can’t get enough of obscure children’s programming, so I’ll be checking out Angelina Ballerina.

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Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”