The psychology of addiction maybe be complex and unknowable, but VH1′s new reality show Celebrity Rehab, debuting tonight, suggests that appearing on a reality show is a danger sign. The guests on the series–in which Dr. Drew Pinsky (Loveline) oversees “stars” in a rehab program for various addicitions–include Jeff Conaway, Brigitte Nielsen and wrestler Chyna, all of whom have appeared on previous VH1 reality shows. (There’s also Jessica Sierra, a former American Idol finalist, now with a cocaine habit.) Celebreality, it turns out, is a gateway drug.
Celebrity Rehab is a far better, more involving, even classier show than its title would suggest. Granted, that is not a high bar to clear, but trust me on this. While it’s less dark and more winking and slick than A&E’s Intervention–Amy Winehouse’s Rehab plays cheekily over one scene–this is more than a clean-and-sober version of The Surreal Life. The institutional setting is not unlike a standard reality set-up; the stars arrive, are assigned roommates and begin striking sparks and stirring the pot. But unlike nearly any other reality show on the planet, the staff at the rehab center are not there to keep the guests liquored up and encourage them to misbehave for the cameras. (Porn star Mary Carey has a stash of sex toys confiscated from her luggage and gets a warning for having been drinking the day she arrives at the center.)
Conaway is an especially scary cautionary tale, cocaine, meds and drinking having reduced the Taxi and Grease star to a near invalid, croaking and weeping to Pinsky in desperation. (Whatever people might accuse this show of, it’s not making addiction look glamorous.) But the show resists the chance to gild the drama with contrived situations or manipulative production. And Pinsky, celebrity M.D. though he is, carries himself not like a game-show host but a doctor, calm but firm, letting the patients tell their own stories in their one-on-one sessions.
It’s always tempting to judge a show like Celebrity Rehab morally, by the motivations of people watching it, the people appearing and the people making it. Will people watch it to laugh at the has-beens? Were the stars attracted by one more chance, however degrading, to be in front of a camera? Was VH1 hoping to mine ratings from sickness? Maybe, but none of that makes this any better or worse a series, or its drama less compelling and human. The “stars” of Celebrity Rehab may not be actual celebrities; they may be fame-chasing, entitled or immature. But the show makes clear that they are also people–literally, they are consciousnesses encased in bodies of flesh that will fail them the same as any nonfamous person if they are not careful. If you’re used to watching VH1′s usual celebrity car-crash extravaganzas, you may be surprised how much sympathy you end up feeling for some of them.
What draws people in to Celebrity Rehab may be that hoariest of VH1 premises: Where are they now? But seeing where they really are now, and the stakes for them if they don’t get out, is what makes Celebrity Rehab habit-forming.