Celeb Rehab: Wasted Opportunity

NOTE: I wrote the op-ed piece below last year and sent it to the NY Times and LA Times. Neither ran it, but a couple of months later the NY Times published an article that raised many of the same questions that I did. More recently, Entertainment Weekly had a short piece on “Addiction Television” in their April 16 issue, which asks a recovery expert to weigh in on the subject. His opinions mirrored my own sentiments below…


By Rich Figel

As a recovering alcoholic, I’m not surprised that the Celebrity Rehab spin-off series, Sober House, doesn’t seem to have very much to do with recovery. It is Hollywood’s version of reality, after all, cast and edited with ratings in mind.

But as a screenwriter, I’m appalled that the big melodramatic twists are given away at the start of each vomit-tinged episode, and then shown again in clips before each commercial break. Do the producers think their audience consists mostly of brain-damaged addicts with short attention spans, incapable of recall beyond the last 10 minutes?

Aside from the repetitive “teasers,” I have serious moral problems with this show — and I presume many recovery professionals do too. But first, full disclosure: years ago, I tried to sell a pitch for a fictional TV series called Rehab, which focused on the counselors at a treatment center for all sorts of addictions and weird compulsions.

In my series, the counselors themselves were recovering addicts, which is often the case in rehab. The idea was that we can learn more from those who have been sober for a few years than from people who have just stopped using for a month or two. “Pink cloud” epiphanies by newbies makes for warm and fuzzy TV moments, but those optimistic sentiments can evaporate as quickly as the careers of the former American Idols, models and actors who pop in and out of Sober House or Celeb Rehab.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for making recovery entertaining for the masses. It’s a program of attraction, they say, and I don’t see why TV can’t be part of that mix. However, Dr. Drew Pinsky, the show’s creator and voice of authority, is missing an opportunity to show “normies” why addictions are so hard to overcome. It makes these celebs look like spoiled, narcissistic, overgrown children — which is true of many addicts, myself included. But this show caters to the very egotism that got them into trouble in the first place. Even the “three strikes” house rule is an invitation to relapses, by giving them two chances to misbehave before they get the boot.

The biggest problem with Sober House is that the producers believe audiences would rather gawk at the train wreck than watch the hard work it takes to clear the wreckage. There is precious little talk of fundamental principles most recovery programs are built on. It’s more about which club or party they are debating going to, and who will puke next after ignoring halfhearted warnings about avoiding temptations. In short, it panders to instant gratification — the bane of all addicts.

By contrast, in David Carr’s gritty and honest book, The Night of the Gun, he writes about how the constant repetition of 12 Step sayings actually worked for him. Mottos like “one day at a time… first things first… easy does it… don’t drink, go to meetings,” and so on. It’s a simple program — but not easy, which is what counselors tell you from day one.

Yet in Sober House they seem to throw many tenets of recovery out the door right after they check in. All 12 Step-based programs stress the importance of attending 90 AA or NA meetings in the first 90 days. It’s a matter of discipline. In the award-winning HBO Addiction series, researchers confirmed a scientific basis for that idea, noting it takes the brain a minimum of 90 days to begin “rewiring” itself.

Cut to: Sober House clients making plans to go out clubbing and to parties in the very first couple of episodes, only a month after getting clean. There is no mention of daily AA or NA meetings as an alternative to activities they are clearly not ready for. They just seem to loaf around the house and smoke a lot.

Oh, sure, the staff and resident house manager express concerns when the celebs announce they’re going out. But the laxness in the house rules, combined with plenty of outside visitors — some decidedly in the unsavory category — practically guarantees dramatic “slips” will occur. In true game show fashion though, the celebs each get three chances to screw up before they must leave the tribe.

Another integral part of early recovery is getting an AA or NA sponsor to work the 12 Steps with. What does that entail, you ask? Well, that’s one of the things neither Celebrity Rehab or Sober House ever addresses. The Steps don’t work for everyone, and that’s something that should be discussed too, along with new drugs that are being used to suppress cravings for alcohol, cocaine and meth. One size does not fit all in recovery.

To me, that’s the saddest thing about watching these programs. There are important issues related to our culture’s hypocritical views toward drugs and alcohol, which we should be talking about. Instead, shows like Sober House reinforce a negative image of addicts as being self-absorbed divas and bad boys, who take second and third chances for granted. In the real world, addicts and alcoholics get better by helping others, while listening to older and wiser voices of experience. I hope Dr. Drew will show more of that on camera before the series is through. When you’ve seen one celeb barfing in the toilet, you’ve seen them all.

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3 Comments on “Celeb Rehab: Wasted Opportunity”

  1. gerry boyd Says:

    Nice post. Have you read Infinite Jest? There’s some interesting and, I suppose, honest takes on rehab in one of the main subplots.

    • richfigel Says:

      Hey, Gerry –

      Just realized that when I responded to your earlier comments that I didn’t use the “Reply” button, so I’m not sure if you got the reply or not. Anyway, thanks for stopping by! Did you like Infinite Jest or any of his other stuff? DFW is kind of hit or miss for me, at least the short stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. On the other hand, he’s written some really good essays.

      BTW, great to see that you’ve been able to get together with Susie, Stick and Lauren! Wish I could’ve been there for that shindig!


  2. richfigel Says:

    Hey, Gerry –

    Infinite Jest is on my reading list — I’ve been reading Brief Interviews With Hideous Men on and off, and have been meaning to pick up Jest for a long time. Thanks for the reminder!

    BTW, great to see your poems are really resonating with a lot of other writers! Keep up the good writing… although I gotta confess, sometimes your stuff confounds me (in a good way!).

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