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TELEVISION REVIEW

On 'Rehab,' sobriety as a career move

The D-Listers of 'Celebrity Rehab' at the Pasadena Recovery Center, where radio host Dr. Drew Pinsky aims to lead them out of addiction. The D-Listers of "Celebrity Rehab" at the Pasadena Recovery Center, where radio host Dr. Drew Pinsky aims to lead them out of addiction. (Evans Ward/VH1)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 10, 2008

Soon, next to the stars' "Favorite Designer Bags" and "Favorite Exfoliation Products" in People magazine, we'll see "Favorite Rehab Facilities." Going to rehab has become not only a punch line - all together now: "no, no, no" - but a valuable resource for PR agents in Hollywood's Thirty Mile Zone. When this week's pretty young Icarus flies too close to the fun and lands in the tabloid waters, a stint in detox is as useful as finding God - and less cerebral! The bimboisie can wash their sins away at Promises, or Passages, and get back to the red carpet toot sweetly.

At this moment in this kooky, crazy, mixed-up thing we call pop culture, the notion of building a Hollywood career out of rehab - going in and out of recovery like Patti LuPone does Broadway shows - is not completely Swiftian, or Chayefskian, or Onionian. And so tonight at 10, VH1 fills the market gap with a new reality show called "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." On it, an assembly of lower-echelon performers de tox together at the Pasadena Recovery Center under Dr. Drew Pinsky, radio host and, as he tells us, "board certified addictionologist." He's like Dr. Phil, but more McDreamy and less Oprah-atic.

Surprisingly, the cast of "Celebrity Rehab" does not include Danny Bonaduce, a pioneer in the business of reality Humpty-Dumpty-ism, or any of the Osbournes. The vaguely familiar faces in this group of budding and seasoned rehabbers include the Amazonian Stallone ex Brigitte Nielsen, porn actress Mary Carey, one-time "American Idol" contestant Jessica Sierra, "Family Matters" child star Jaimee Foxworth, former pro wrestler and nude model Chyna, and Seth "Shifty" Binzer, lead singer of Crazy Town. The most familiar name probably belongs to infamous brother Daniel Baldwin, a recovering crack addict who let "Primetime" follow him through recovery last year, and whose commitment to sobriety appears to be genuine.

But the breakout star of "Celebrity Rehab" is going to be a guy named Jeff Conaway, from the sitcom "Taxi" and the movie "Grease," in which he played Kenickie. Conaway, who once left VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" to go to rehab, is a suicidal mess. He arrives at the Recovery Center completely loaded, and Pinsky suspects that Conaway's girlfriend is going to keep smuggling in various and sundry chemicals for him. Slurring and belligerent, unable to walk on his own, Conaway brings on the drama and the realism.

During the premiere, Mary Carey - who doesn't let her porn career get in the way of her ambition to run for president - provides funny and flashy moments, as her sex toys are confiscated from her luggage. Looking like Lindsay Lohan dipped in liquid rubber, she comes on to Shifty, but he is about to go MIA for a few days with cocaine withdrawal. Carey, an alcoholic who plans to auction off her removed breast implants for charity, is very "Surreal Life," and her untoward pranks - including a resonant fart scene in episode 2 - are typical VH1 celebreality fare.

But Conaway ushers the specter of Anna Nicole Smith into "Celebrity Rehab," as he enters a delirious state that finds him sobbing, hallucinating, trembling, getting rushed to the hospital, fantasizing about killing himself, and muttering lines such as "Life is pain and pain is hell." It's the same specter that haunts today's and tomorrow's news about Britney Spears: At what point should we turn our backs on these addicts and hope they'll find peace privately? Does getting our attention only support their habits? Is editing rehab into TV entertainment glamorizing drug use? This lifestyle, as Anna Nicole demonstrated, doesn't have to end well.

I'm guessing Dr. Drew and VH1 would argue that "Celebrity Rehab" was created to de-glamorize celebrity addiction. But I don't believe that too many people are going to be scared straight watching Brigitte Nielsen use recovery as a career platform, no matter how many Jeff Conaways pass across their screens. And I do think that the D-listers who appear on the likes of "Celebrity Rehab" are going to experience the show as positive reinforcement for their addictions. On Tuesday, pregnant 22-year-old "Celebrity Rehab" grad Jessica Sierra made headlines once again for being sentenced to a year in drug treatment. And here I am writing about her.

Stupidly, when I first saw the title "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," I thought the show was about performers looking to detox from fame-a-holism. How rare would that be, to watch Hollywood's tragic hangers-on wean themselves off the teat of exhibitionism? But then that version of "Celebrity Rehab" would last for only one episode, as each cast member was immediately sent into seclusion.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew

On: VH1

Tonight, 10-11

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