TV show on famous addicts is habit-forming
It sounded like a bad joke: a new TV show on VH1 called "Celebrity Rehab"? How tacky! But since I had been pitching my own "Rehab" series idea for years, I had to tune in.
The first two episodes lived up (or down) to my expectations, given that VH1 specializes in exploiting the tawdry side of celebs. Trainwreck No. 1 was Jeff Conaway, who played Bobby Wheeler on the classic '70s sitcom, "Taxi." He arrived in a wheelchair, drooling and babbling incoherently. I was stunned. If it had been the perpetually spaced-out Rev. Jim character checking in, that would have made sense.
Rev. Jim always acted stoned, yet never inhaled on screen. His wide-eyed bewilderment was mostly attributed to flashbacks from prior years of heavy drug usage. The laugh track tells us the public didn't view his '60s hippie phase with scorn in the Disco Era. Similarly, go back to the '60s variety shows and you might catch Foster Brooks doing his drunk standup comedy routine. Had the "Lovable Lush" surfaced in the '80s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving would have called for his banishment from TV for making light of alcoholism.
Fast forward to the present, and you'll find addiction all over the television universe. What started with TV Movie of the Week portrayals of alcoholic/drug-addicted middle-class moms and dads descending into the pits of hell (i.e., suburbs in New Jersey), has been replaced with reality TV versions of the same basic story lines.
Yes, shows like "Intervention" find new angles, such as young girls who starve or cut themselves, and grannies with gambling addictions, but the trajectory still follows the MOW formula: down, down, down, epiphany, triumphant recovery, short postscript. If only it were that simple.
The problem with these movies and reality TV shows is the camera focuses almost solely on the actions of the messed-up addict, which gets old fast, since a drunk or junkie has a one-track mind. Their lives are consumed by the need to get that next fix. It's depressing and dull to watch after awhile. That's why short YouTube clips of, say an inebriated David Hasselhoff scarfing down a cheeseburger, are so popular. Voyeurism is best enjoyed in small doses.
For me, real drama is seeing if addicts can pull it together after they stop using. However, those are long-term challenges and relapses are common in recovery -- plot points that don't fit neatly into a 90-minute movie or hour-long TV episode.
I know, because I wrote a movie screenplay based on my four-week stay in rehab, way before Sandra Bullock starred in "28 Days." My script read too much like ... well, a Movie of the Week. Then I realized it might work better as an ongoing TV series that could trace the growth and setbacks my characters would face inside -- and outside -- a fictional treatment center in Hawaii.
But I had another big twist in mind. When I saw the movies "Clean and Sober" and "28 Days," I felt the counselors (played by Morgan Freeman and Steve Buscemi, respectively) were more interesting than the protagonists. They were recovering addicts themselves, and there was a wisdom in their silence. A single look by the counselor could cut through all the bull and excuses given by the Sandra Bullock and Michael Keaton characters for their behavior. That's how it is in real life, too.
So in my "Rehab" series, I flipped it. The stars were the counselors -- a motley crew of recovering addicts, treating people from all walks of life, including celebs. It was darkly humorous, sort of like M*A*S*H in tone. When I began pitching it more than 10 years ago, there was no "Grey's Anatomy" or "House" on TV. Although a producer in L.A. did shop it around to major studios, not one expressed any interest.
A veteran of the TV and movie business explained to me that rehab was "old hat" to people there. "Everybody in Hollywood has been to rehab," she groused. She presumed mainstream audiences wouldn't be interested in a show about recovery, despite the fact that nearly all of us knows an addict, or is affected by addiction somehow.
In a recent meeting with producers, I segued into my TV series pitch for the umpteenth time. One of the partners said, "You do know there's a new show called 'Celebrity Rehab'?" I nodded, told him my concept was more about what we can learn from the counselors. They've been through it all and survived. They are the ones we should be listening to -- not the sudden epiphanies of a celeb who has been clean and sober for a couple of weeks or months.
Someone like Daniel Baldwin, in other words. The most annoying thing about "Celebrity Rehab" was him. He had been in treatment before, and proceeded to take inventory of everyone's problems while proclaiming he was not being "judgmental" of them. I kept hoping the muscle-bound woman wrestler would put him in a head lock. Thankfully, he left by the third episode.
Despite my early misgivings about the show, a funny thing happened about halfway through that same episode. They cut away from the pool, where the porn star, C-list actors, professional wrestlers and a former "American Idol" finalist were lounging about, to show Dr. Drew in a meeting with two counselors -- recovering addicts themselves. They were discussing the warning signs that were popping up for relapse in those patients. This was good stuff!
In the beginning, I thought these "has-beens" were using the show as a last-ditch effort to get attention. Perhaps they were. But there was something genuine and touching in observing them reconnect with their real selves. Except for Daniel Baldwin -- not to be confused with the other annoying Baldwin (Stephen) on "Celebrity Apprentice"... um, I have got to cut back on my television viewing. When you can tell the minor Baldwin brothers apart, you know you're a reality TV junkie.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
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