VH1 puts reality TV into rehab

Times Staff Writer

Brigitte Nielsen, who has made a second career out of third and fourth careers, puts it this way: “People who don’t have a heart are going to find it entertaining, but really it’s educational and it should be looked at in that way.”

The Danish-born actress is referring to her earnest participation in VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday and costars eight other low-rung celebrities battling for sobriety. Some, like Nielsen, who had to drink half a bottle of vodka to make the initial phone call for rehab, are still winning: Almost six months after taping the program, she said, she hasn’t had a drink. Others on the program, like Jessica Sierra, a former “American Idol” finalist who was arrested and jailed last month in Florida on charges of disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest, clearly are not.

Judgments were checked at the door, but in this groundbreaking case, the cameras were not. Recording devices were everywhere inside a Pasadena residential treatment facility, yielding what is being billed as television’s first look inside the mystery of rehabilitation -- and all under the supervision of the only celebrity in the room without an addiction.

Whether viewers find the eight one-hour episodes that unblinkingly capture such fallen-star moments as withdrawal shakes, group therapy tears or post-meal flatulence as elucidating as a PBS documentary or as tragi-hilarious as VH1’s long line of “celebreality” programming remains to be seen. But before it has even aired, the VH1 show has raised questions across Internet message boards about the ethics of violating rehab’s traditional shroud of privacy in the apparent service of television ratings. Adding to the potential cynicism -- and attention, of course -- are the show’s deeply troubled celebrities, who are, after all, human, and may well be hovering just inches above their lowest point in life.


It’s a thought that has weighed heavily upon the show’s center of calm and authority, Dr. Drew Pinsky. A physician and head of the Department of Chemical Dependency Services at Pasadena’s Las Encinas Hospital, the prematurely gray father of teenage triplets is known for his articulate compassion and is probably more famous -- thanks to his nationally syndicated radio call-in program, “Loveline,” and numerous television appearances -- than many of his “Celebrity Rehab” patients.

“I wasn’t clear this was a good idea,” he said. “It sounds exploitive; it certainly could have been, but for the grace of God, I don’t think it was. . . . Ultimately, I was responsible for treatment, not a good TV show.”

Rescuing rehab

Whatever the show’s strengths, they are clearly drawn from the ever-widening hurricane of news coverage that routinely lifts celebrity-gone-bad stories like Britney Spears’ to national prominence. The young pop singer, who appears to have lost custody of her two young children in part because of her substance abuse, is only the latest in a steady line of troubled stars who takes center stage not for their artistic work but for their scorched personal lives.

“We’re like the Aztecs. We tear someone’s heart out every day,” said Pinsky, who was in a Florida courtroom this week to help persuade a local judge that more rehab, not jail, time was in Sierra’s best interest. “Instead of it being up on a big temple, we do it on television.”

But Pinsky, along with VH1 executives, still believed a show about the actual recovery process would not only be pioneering but also could go a long way in reforming damaging misconceptions about it. Dragged through the tabloid muck and portrayed as either breezy or ineffectual, rehab itself has regrettably become a national punch line.

Pinsky, who has supervised the recovery of hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts, said, “I really wanted to show people what it truly was and how important and helpful it is when it is done well.”

The reality of rehab is no sitcom, said Pinsky.

“Treatment is not a car wash that you go in one side and come out the other,” he emphasized. “It’s a long, long process. Addiction is much closer to diabetes or asthma than a skin infection. It recurs. It relapses and you have to get tuned up and re-treated. And then, it’s only in remission.”

The show opens with its nine participants in the throes of full-blown addiction, many using their substance of choice on the very morning of check-in. None’s experience is as harrowing as actor Jeff Conaway’s, who is so intoxicated by a mix of alcohol and pills that his slurred speech is necessarily translated in subtitles. The former costar on the ‘70s sitcom “Taxi,” who abruptly departed from VH1’s own “Celebrity Fit Club” for an unsuccessful swipe in rehab a couple of years ago, experiences such pronounced tremors, sweating and other withdrawal symptoms this go-round that he is rushed to a hospital.

But in their own way, each of the show’s other costars -- like porn actress Mary Carey, who has her sexual aids confiscated, and former pro wrestler Chyna, who denies any real problem -- are in just as much psychological trouble. On the first day, Pinsky flatly tells the group, which also includes Daniel Baldwin, Jaimee Foxworth, Seth Binzer and Ricco Rodriguez, that they won’t all last through the three-week shoot. (He was right.)

They won’t leave because of some artificial reality-show gimmick, explained Pinsky, but because of the hard facts of rehab. Some people just aren’t ready to get well.

More real?

Bottom-rung celebs clinging to the cameras is not exactly new territory for VH1, which has built a very successful brand with the reality programming niche. Shows like “The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love” and “Breaking Bonaduce,” which chronicled former child star Danny Bonaduce’s failing marriage and suicide attempt (the latter off-camera), may have hit new cultural lows with the critics, but they scored impressive ratings for the network.

“There have been complaints that reality television isn’t real. Well, ‘Celebrity Rehab’ is about as real as it gets,” said Michael Hirschorn, executive vice president for original programming and production at VH1. “I just don’t think you can watch this show and say, ‘Man, it would be cool to be a drug addict.’ This is about as scared straight as you’re going to get.”

Initially, Pinsky proposed splitting the show’s casting between celebrities and non-celebrities, but the idea was nixed by VH1 executives. In retrospect, that was “totally the right call,” said Pinsky. The famous are important draws into the tent.

“The celebrity element is a necessary element, at least in this stage and until people understand what this is all about,” said Pinsky. “As people watch the show and see how many of these people go from celebrities to human beings, my hope is we’ll stop and think about the mud we sling at the Britney, Lindsay or Paris.”

Far from corrupting the therapeutic environment, the cameras actually seem to accelerate and enhance the treatment, said Pinsky. Some of the hardest work in rehab is unearthing the personal trauma that propels the patient’s addiction, but the cameras seem to open them up almost immediately, he added.

“We have a saying that if an addict’s lips are moving, they must be lying,” he said. “The cameras somehow added a layer of accountability that you usually don’t see without the cameras.”

Almost halfway through the series, one of the celebrities does complain about the circus-like atmosphere promoted by the all-seeing lenses. But they didn’t bother Nielsen, who says she’s healthier than ever because of the experience and is grateful.

“I feel like VH1 is my family,” said Nielsen. “They have seen the wild, drunk Brigitte, and now they allowed me the chance to come back to who I really am by doing ‘Celebrity Rehab.’ Maybe there’s another show about life after rehab?”