Addiction and Reality TV

"You'd be amazed how quickly you forget about the cameras. Now they're reacting a little bit, this is something that I did not, I've not had experience with, so they're having quite a bit of anxiety about seeing themselves on TV and how people are going to perceive them and think about them." -- Dr. Drew Pinsky

The portrayal of addiction on television is always a thorny morass. Whether it's the truly harrowing portraits of addicts on A&E's Intervention and Vh1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, or the constant care and feeding of the Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes broken-starlet industry, there's something ignoble about watching real people in the firm grasp of their disease's tendrils as they wind their way (or unwind their way) through the druggy labyrinth of addiction on camera. Someone's court date or intimate rehab disclosures are just so disconcertingly none of my business, it can be hard to take. Not that reality TV profiles don't do real good; I think they surely do. But recovery as entertainment is not something any of us should be totally comfortable viewing.

I watched the first episode of Dr. Drew's new season of Rehab -- "Intake Day" -- and once again found myself torn between the utterly compelling plight of the addict and the intense desire to shield these young people (and they are all young) from the cameras.

Does an addict who uses 40 bags of heroin (!) per day really have the mental wherewithal to give informed consent to be filmed? How much desperation (I need help but I can't afford it, can you help, Dr. Drew?) goes into such consent? But then there is Dr. Drew on camera, calmly handling the toughest cases, explaining addiction to millions of viewers (millions!) with the cool ease of a pro but in the ordinary language of the layman. He is also obviously and painstakingly devoted to his patients' recoveries. And then I feel the moral equivalence of a new set of questions tugging at my brain. How many people will see this show right now and seek help? How many relatives will recognize their family's addict in these scared faces and make a life-saving phone call? How many un-addicted Americans will learn to be a bit more compassionate, a bit more knowledgeable, and a bit more well-informed thanks to this show?

I did find it interesting that Dr. Drew eschewed going back to the well of addicted celebrities this season and instead is focusing on non-famous addicts. At first, in a purely cynical moment, I thought this was a terrible decision. (Won't the ratings be better with celebrities, Vh1?) But then something happened: I became viscerally taken with these twentysomethings' troubles precisely because they are not well-known. Fame, I realized, had been a buffer between the viewers and the recovering addicts these last five seasons. Don't get me wrong, I found the celebrities' stories deeply moving, too: You could feel gears click into place for Brigitte Nielsen and also sense the danger Mike Starr's rage and profound sadness put him in long before his disease finally came calling for keeps. But the celebrities were from a different world than my own -- a world of "Hollywood parties" and fawning fans and a kind of moral lawlessness that seemed to emanate exclusively from Los Angeles itself, an addiction hellmouth.

And though intellectually I knew none of that mattered, or was even true or real, I still felt a slight distance between me and the addicts on Celebrity Rehab. A fame fence came between us; they were other. Not so with this fresh crop, some of whom are coming straight from their bewildered, sad, angry, enabling, spooked parents' homes. These normal people with their extraordinary addictions expose the convenient lie that celebrities are somehow manufactured beings from the town of manufactured dreams. A lie some defensive part of myself created so the mirror they held up to me wouldn't be quite so recognizable.