So, confession: I am addicted to addiction shows. I can watch episode after episode of Intervention, and I have religiously DVRed every incarnation of the Dr. Drew treatment saga–Celebrity Rehab, Sober House and Sex Rehab. I’ve watched this latter group of shows through splayed fingers, with that quiet, niggling feeling in my stomach. The one that makes me wonder if shows like this are staged (they are) and exploitative (they are), if the fact that they’re recorded and televised negates their value. I’ve always told myself that ultimately, if people get help, then that’s good, and if we get to watch it, the same way we watch documentaries, then what’s the difference. (Flashing back to Professor Speight’s sophomore Ethics class at BU: Kant would call bullshit here.)
I also suspect, in the case of the celebrities on these shows–almost all of whom are C-list or beyond–the glimmer of a refurbished career, delivered to them gratis if they only promise to get clean (or to fail stunningly, but to at least fail stunningly on camera) in front of millions of viewers is truly the motivating factor. It’s a sort of tree-falling-in-the-woods proposition: If rehab happens and no one is there to watch it, is it really worth it? The answer, of course, is no, so if our witnessing them have psychotic breaks and get the DTs and crumble under the agonizing pain of detox and then the worse pain of group therapy means they have a shot at a better life, then ok. And if some viewer out there struggling with meth or coke or Xanax is also somehow helped by bearing witness, then really really ok.
This season of Celebrity Rehab makes me feel particularly slimy, and here’s why: I’ve always liked Dr. Drew. He strikes me as a fame whore, but he does good work. (He’s also dreamy, so telegenic it’s hard to imagine him not being on TV.) But this season, Drew’s reunited meth addict Heidi Fleiss (who is, surprisingly, very likable) with her ex Tom Sizemore. He’s likeable, too, in a way. Here’s the thing: Tom Sizemore once beat the crap out of Heidi Fleiss. As she tells it, when they broke up, she left with her head split open. I’m guessing they were both high as kites and probably both bear some responsibility in the violent, tragic end of their affair. Watching them reunite (we get to see it–of course we do; we get to see everything) is touching and sad and confusing. But I can’t imagine any other situation in which a doctor would place someone who is essentially a battered woman in a rehab facility with her abuser, can you? Of course not. Well, not unless that situation makes good TV.
Drew acknowledges this conundrum in voiceover after a scene in which Tom, starting to detox, lies on Heidi’s lap for comfort. Drew says he’s “concerned that their complicated, volatile relationship will cause them to turn on each other at any moment” (even better TV!) so he’s “going to keep a close eye on them.” Hey, here’s an idea: How about keep them separate? Y’know, in different treatment facilities?
I imagine Dr. Drew would say that Heidi and Tom have a difficult relationship, that they care for each other, and it’s clear that they do. He would probably say that they wanted to film the show together. (He might not say that neither one would consent to rehab unless it were part of a televised show, but that’s also probably true.) But wouldn’t many women whose boyfriends have beat the crap out of them make the same claims? Isn’t that battered wife syndrome? An abused woman would need treatment, and so would her boyfriend, but they’d need treatment separately. And they’d probably also need never to lay eyes on each other again.
All the people on these rehab shows have been exploited in some way in their life. Whether it’s Celebrity Rehab 3‘s Mackenzie Phillips, who so famously did very bad things with her father, or every single castmate on Sex Rehab. They’ve been used by relatives and spouses and hangers-on. It’s hard not to think that they’re being exploited all over again, and I’m sure it seems worth it to them.
Those of us who watch reality TV know we’re in for an unseemly experience; hell, it’s why a lot of us watch. But this crosses a line. I’m on board when the therapy seems like good treatment and also happens to be good television. But I can’t for the life of me think how Heidi Fleiss and Tom Sizemore going through rehab together could be a good idea beyond a cheap ratings trick.