By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Given that VH1's lineup is littered with reality shows about faded stars who make fools of themselves for our guilty-pleasure enjoyment, it would seem easy to toss the network's new series "Celebrity Rehab" into that same trash bin.
But not so fast. Surprisingly, "Celebrity Rehab" -- in which everyone from aging actors Jeff Conaway and Daniel Baldwin and "American Idol" finalist Jessica Sierra talks out a personal struggle with substance abuse -- is compelling and thoughtful.
That's right: The words "VH1" and "thoughtful" made it into the same sentence.
Who would have thought it possible from the former music-video network that has given us "The Surreal Life" (featuring washed-up "personalities" living together and acting ridiculous), rapper Flavor Flav's absurd search for love, and an examination of Scott Baio's selfish bachelorhood.
"Celebrity Rehab's" class and appeal can be credited to host Drew Pinsky, or "Dr. Drew," as he's known on his syndicated radio show, "Loveline." Pinsky, a physician specializing in addiction, has never been one to shy away from a camera or a talk show couch, but on "Rehab" he sticks to his usual persona, despite the reality show environment: calming, caring and professorial. He's honestly trying to improve these people's lives.
And make no mistake, this easily could have been another VH1 freak show, based on the lineup of recovering celebrities. Just look at the resumes: Four of the participants -- Baldwin, Conaway, Brigitte Nielsen and pro wrestler Chyna -- are alumni of such inferior fare as "The Surreal Life" and "Celebrity Fit Club."
But "Celebrity Rehab" is mostly a serious affair as the stars battle their demons.
"I don't know how to stop drinking," adult film star Mary Carey tells Pinsky in one of the many one-on-one interviews that are a staple of the show.
Tonight's episode opens with graphic footage of the celebrities engaging in their destructive behavior prior to entering rehab: Seth "Shifty" Binzer of the band Crazytown is shown in the back of a car, taking a hit off a crack pipe; former "Family Matters" star Jaimee Foxworth is seen smoking copious amounts of marijuana; and Conaway can be seen popping countless pills and snorting a powdery substance that he claims is baby formula.
The 57-year-old Conaway, who starred in "Taxi" and the movie "Grease," provides the most drama tonight, as the addled actor is wheeled into the Pasadena Recovery Center, where the series was shot last summer. He's addicted to all sorts of painkillers that he's says were prescribed to him by doctors as a result of an accident several years ago.
There are some very disturbing scenes with Conaway moaning and writhing in pain as he goes through withdrawal. "Life is pain and pain is hell," Conaway tells Pinsky.
Although reality shows have become vehicles for former stars to jump-start their careers, this is not the show that would seem to provide that kind of Hollywood bounce. These folks, laying it all out there for viewers to watch, seem remarkably candid when discussing their struggles to stay clean and sober.
It might be celebrity voyeurism that brings you to this series, but it's the genuine drama and authenticity of the subjects that will keep you watching.
Celebrity Rehab (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on VH1.