Moving Pictures November 2009

Retching With the Stars

The addictive appeal of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s Celebrity Rehab
Sean McCabe

At the monument to the Last Postmodern Philosopher, who was assumed into heaven after watching Season One of Laguna Beach, the celebrities are gathering to pay tribute: lumbering Donald Trump, with his volume always set wrong; tiny-footed Tila Tequila. There’s Paris Hilton, sleek as a seal; and a cartwheeling Flavor Flav! Applause greets them all, and shouted questions, the usual brouhaha. With the arrival of one man, however, a fresh note is heard from the crowd—a note of supplication. Hands are out-thrust, seeking the curative touch. Here, the people seem to feel, is someone with answers, someone with powers. Who is he, this smiling thaumaturge? We must investigate. For despite his mildness and evident sanity, and his perpetual bedside manner, reality TV has in its long roster of loonies produced no more exotic figure than Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Dr. Drew is the service director of the Chemical Dependency/Residential Treatment Center at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, California. He is a board-certified internist and addictionologist, 51 years old, tall, neutrally handsome, and fit as a fiddle. His voice is even, his face without pores, and when he tilts his head his semi-frameless glasses catch the light like faraway windshields. He favors khaki slacks, light-mauve or powder-blue shirts, and nice ties. For 25 years he has hosted the nationally syndicated radio show Loveline—toneless voices of teens, some of whom can barely phrase their distress, calling in with misunderstood gayness or drug queries or parent problems or never-ending boners, each issue calmly and compassionately addressed in the Pinsky baritone.

This is the youth of the nation, and Dr. Drew is listening. In his 2003 book, Cracked: Life on the Edge in a Rehab Clinic, he decried the “orgiastic mythos of sex, mayhem and cool clothes” whipped up by “the most successful creative figures in our culture, from the producers of reality TV to the editors of Maxim,” and outlined his basic message to today’s kids:

Life isn’t all about fun and sex … Slow down. Listen to your inner voice when it comes to right and wrong. Think for yourself. Be more human.

Mental health, he wrote in Cracked, “is about accepting reality on reality’s terms.”

All of which, one might think, would tend to make his next move—a VH1 reality show called Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew—something of a surprise. But no: just part of the program. Appalled by The Osbournes and The Anna Nicole Show, wherein (as he wrote in this year’s The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America) the loopiness of the subjects was paraded “without acknowledging all the circumstances underlying their dysfunction,” Dr. Drew decided upon a cultural intervention: a show in which addicted celebrities would weep, puke, “act out,” shudder sweatily through days of withdrawal, and then, in harrowed sobriety, face the music. As he is fond of saying: “There’s no free lunch with Mother Nature!”

Twenty-one days of treatment at the Pasadena Recovery Center, under Dr. Drew’s supervision, with a camera crew present: that’s the formula. And as far as ratings go, it seems to be working: a third season is in production, to be aired in early 2010. The lineup changes, of course. If the cast of Season One—a porn star, an Ultimate Fighter, a Baldwin brother, Brigitte Nielsen—resembled a colonization pod en route to the surface of a freshly invaded planet, Season Two’s addicts were more disarming. We met gentle Rodney King, infamously beaten by the LAPD in 1991 and still prone to demolishing himself with intoxicants; Steven Adler, leakily lovable, ejected from the Guns N’ Roses drum stool and having sad dreams that someone was kicking his dog; and Sean Stewart, troubled son of Rod.

The rehab vibe, however, the smell of generalized debility, is a constant. Peering from beneath hoods, wearing sweatpants, clutching blankets, huddling sideways in their chairs as if centrifugally dislodged from their own lives, the celebs tell their stories at group sessions. The stories, of abuse and neglect, are very sad: sometimes Dr. Drew is literally panting with empathy. Then after each session, in the facility’s little Californian back garden, they sit amid lush, dark leaves and smoke like chimneys, if such furrowed, ritualistic intensity can be attributed to chimneys. And they fall to pieces, punctually. Amber Smith, a stately beauty from Season Two, seemed more or less unafflicted until we saw her going through detox—jackknifed over the trash can and probing her epiglottis with a long finger. Season Three will feature Heidi Fleiss, Dennis Rodman, and the ex-bassist from Alice in Chains.

My favorite addict so far? Gary Busey, by a mile. “The Businator,” as his fellow patients called him—or, when he’d pissed them off, “Dr. Abusey.” With bull-at-the-gate physical presence, a born-again ex-cokehead blowing hoarse gusts of religion (“I speak from a spiritual land that I live in!”), Busey on Celebrity Rehab seemed to rise in slashes of charcoal and orange crayon from the pages of Flannery O’Connor, twice as potent as the characters he played in Point Break and The Firm. He spoke in parables and the personalized acronyms he calls “Busey-isms”—SOBER, for example, breaks down Busey-style as “Son Of a Bitch, Everything’s Real!” (Sean Stewart inquired at one point if there was a Busey-ism for colonoscopy. “Not yet,” replied Busey, “but I got one for poop.”) He got into an awful fight with Jeff Conaway (Kenickie in Grease; painkillers), after which he promised, before the group, to pray for him. “Oh, shove it up your ass!” said Conaway. “Everybody knows you’re crazy.” Later, in the garden, the two old troupers had a rapprochement. “I know you love me,” grumbled Conaway. “One hundred and fifty percent,” breathed Busey. “My love for you lives 5,000 miles past heaven.” Conaway looked at him: “If it just stopped at heaven,” he said, “that’s enough for me.” The Businator’s mental “filter” was damaged in a motorcycle accident he suffered in 1988—or so suggested Dr. Charles Sophy, a colleague of Dr. Drew’s who appeared in Season Two wearing no socks. (I found this remarkable in a medical man: between trouser hem and refulgent loafer, a gleam of bronzed ankle.)




Video: James Parker comments on scenes of Jeff Conway's desperation, Gary Busey's acronymns, and Dr. Charles Sophy's sockless wisdom

As a healer, Dr. Drew is fascinating. On the surface his approach is scientific and slightly Dawkins-oid: in Cracked he briskly locates the source of addiction in “a tiny region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens,” and suggests that the emotional dissociation of the trauma victim is “an evolutionary remnant of the risky strategy of feigning death.”

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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