Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Healing Power of Television

Over at Stereogum, songwriter and memoirist Julianna Hatfield has a very persuasive op-ed about the the new season of VH1's Celebrity Rehab, a show she describes as follows:

The camera follows you around, inflating your importance in and to the world, glorifying and broadcasting your troubles over the airwaves into millions of peoples' homes. All this does is to perpetuate the fame and self-involvement that can really mess with a person's -- especially an addict's -- head.

She goes on to express concern that, far from helping the stars, the show is actually making them worse.

A 12-step program won't work without humility and humility is not possible with lights and cameras and microphones trained on you, following you around, inflating your importance. And real community and support is not possible on a TV set. The aims of a TV production are in direct opposition to the goals of rehab.

Is Celebrity Rehab helping or hindering the people taking part in the show? They are, after all, being given drug rehabilitation treatment and getting paid for it. The fact remains, however, that they're on the show precisely because they're addicts. Regardless of the apparent encouragement to get sober, the shows producers are rewarding them with attention and money for doing just the opposite. On the one hand, it's hard to sympathize with self-obsessed drug addicts bent on getting another stab at fame. On the other, aren't they just doing what they're told?

This, of course, raises another question: are we, as viewers, complicit in the producers' manipulation of the shows stars? Is watching bad behavior tacit approval? By watching them, aren't we the ones rewarding them with the attention they crave?

Hatfield ends her essay by asking, "When [Dr. Drew Pinsky] listens to the addicts tell their terrible sorrowful grotesque stories the look on his face is genuinely sympathetic and caring, I think. It's real, I think. It's real. Is it real? Is it real?" There's something plaintive in her question. Obviously, Pinsky is being paid for his participation in the show, but of course, all professional therapists are paid for the services they deliver. Hatfield isn't so much asking whether Pinsky cares for the show's stars as patients as re-asking the questions she raised earlier: Can shows like Celebrity Rehab make people better? Are we, as viewers, helping? It's a comforting thought, that we can help people just by watching television, and Hatfield wants to believe it, even as she's explained that it's plainly untrue. Count me, likewise, among the skeptics.

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