On the latest episode of Celebrity Rehab, actress Bai Ling (a personal favorite of mine from her award-winning work in the sinister horror film Dumplings) refuses to take psychiatric medication before climbing onto the roof of Dr. Drew Pinsky's drug rehabilitation center. What do the employees of the facility do? Do they call the police to get assistance with a possibly unstable self-admitted alcoholic posing a threat to herself and others on top of the facility? Of course not. That's not good TV. They all start climbing on the roof one by one before Dr. Drew races to the back of the building upon hearing a crash. I have to wonder what the actual intentions of broadcasting a program like Celebrity Rehab are. I'll be one of the first people to admit that I watch a lot of reality TV for the trainwreck factor. People eating worms for $50000? Running through mud pits and being thrown in water by large foam sweepers? Struggling to make an outfit out of used chewing gum and newspaper in 6 hours? That's just funny. But what is the entertainment factor in watching sick people trying to recover from dangerous conditions?
It's not just the straight forward rehab shows that alarm me. Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition is, in my mind, captivating for all the wrong reasons. Here you take a 400, 500, 600, even 700 pound person, remove them from the environmental factors that caused them to gain so much weight (their houses are stripped down to gym space, a bed, and a new kitchen constantly stocked with only the good food) and tell them that spending one year doing nothing but losing weight will save their life. It's not an outright lie. Their weight is highly dangerous.
But the show is lying to the participants by basically saying "you're ready in a year." Most of them won't be. There is no mention of any therapy going on to deal with the emotional issues that inevitably come into play in the super-obese. The handsome and charming trainer has his heart in the right place, but this game he's playing with these people will most likely backfire for some of these participants. They'll lose that much weight, say they'll never get that big again, and then slowly slip into old habits because they have to do something other than work out and sleep throughout the day. It's the absurdity of The Biggest Loser stretched over the course of a year without even the chance at cash prizes.
Is anyone at home really taking joy in watching a demolition crew rip apart a house filled with dead cats on Hoarders? Is that really an enjoyable experience for people? Or are we, as a nation, watching these shows to judge these people and feel better about ourselves? "I'm messy, but I'm not that bad." "I could lose some weight, but I'm not that fat." "I probably shouldn't drink so much, but at least I'm not climbing on the roof to escape."
At what point do we stop blaming the networks for the degradation of entertainment and start blaming ourselves? We are the ones choosing to watch someone reveal they are addicted to drugs on national television in Intervention. We're the ones reading all the bomps that point out how a person has destroyed their lives and we're the one watching the pain and suffering of their family and friends as the addict tries to run out of the building to escape reality again.
Intervention, I will say, at least doesn't try to sugarcoat this reality. It presents the issue of drug addiction in a more responsible way. There is no magic fix to this and the show doesn't pretend there is. While we may be watching these families try to save someone's life, the show isn't pretending that this will be successful. They put the addict in a position to agree to treatment or not. Even with treatment, they aren't guaranteed to stay sober. The show is not saying they will. The show is presenting the reality of addiction in a very clean, straight forward way that lets the audience decide what to do with that information.
If more shows played it straight like Intervention, I might not be compelled to question their motives. As it stands, sensationalism sells. So what if someone like Bai Ling might get misdiagnosed as bipolar because she is talking about abstract elements of her faith in very literal English? It's good TV to see her refuse her medicine and climb on top of a building. Who cares if the 700 pound guy dies in two years because he gains all the weight back and more? He lost 400 pounds in a year and that's good TV.
What I believe these shows are actually doing is turning people with serious problems into minor, pitiable celebrities. Are we really rooting on the man with 2000 cases of unopened beer bottles because he let half of them go in a dumpster? Or are we mocking him, his condition, and actually causing harm to other hoarders who are afraid to get help because they might be judged? People participate in live chats and Tweet about these shows like they're live sports events. Jokes are made, bets are placed, and the only thing that changes is who is in front of the camera each week.
The newest episode of Celebrity Rehab really has me thinking about my relationship with reality TV. Am I any better for laughing at girls in stilettos walking on a submerged runway during America's Next Top Model than the people hooting at the reveal of the cat hoard in a sad woman's house? I'm not so sure anymore.
What do you think? Has the reality rehabilitation trend gone too far? Is there anyway to spin these programs into a more positive experience for everyone involved? Or have we all gone so far down the rabbit hole there is no turning back? Sound off in the comments below.