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800 Words

Training Wheels for the Brain

September 11, 2005|Dan Neil

My dream scenario in attending the "Dr. Phil" show was that he would, during commercial breaks, drop his panhandle twang and start talking like Bennett Cerf, or he would f-bomb a stagehand for eating the last doughnut, or that he'd cop a feel from one of his guests because, all other things being equal, if you had never laid eyes on him before, you would figure Dr. Phil for a groper.

Off-camera revelations are the secret hope of everyone who stands in line for a TV show taping. But it would be especially gratifying if Dr. Phil--whose business it is to be the sanest guy in the room, the sanest guy in America--turned out to be a barking lunatic. I sat through the entire show hoping he'd hurl a coffee mug at the head of his adoring wife, Robin. No such luck.

These are heady times for Dr. Phil McGraw. In August he signed a contract extension that will keep him on the air until 2014. The contract, originally reported to be worth $75 million over five years, is--according to his publicist--worth unspeakably more. The show has 7 million viewers daily, only bested in syndicated talk show numbers by his industry mentor, Oprah Winfrey. Between the books, merchandise and other revenue, the 55-year-old Dr. Phil is on his way to being the world's first billion-dollar shrink.

I have mixed feelings about Dr. Phil--what he would call cognitive dissonance if he didn't insist on talking like a high-school football coach. I really like the guy, and yet his show might be the most ethically compromised program in the history of television. Despite its resemblance to therapy, it's more like a Las Vegas hypnotist's act where volunteers are made to cluck and scratch like chickens. Both exploit the frail and vulnerable human mind for others' amusement.

I'm no psychologist, but it seems whatever other problems Dr. Phil's guests have--prostitute soccer moms, serial cheaters, teenagers addicted to cough syrup--their most pressing clinical concern is acute exhibitionism. No matter how bad it is to be serially cuckolded by your trampy, self-hating wife, doesn't life get infinitely more miserable once you talk about it on "Dr. Phil"? "Hey Bob, we saw you on TV. Wow, you're a real jellyfish."

The show we saw taped was titled "The Honeymoon Is Over," about newlyweds already considering divorce. As Miranda revealed that sex with her husband made her feel dirty--but she had no problem with one-night stands--her husband Donny sniffled pathetically that he wanted to make it work. My God. It's my considered clinical opinion that Donny should be caned.

Why do they do it? Apart from the bewitching prospect of appearing on 211 stations nationwide, the show's contestants--I mean, guests--receive a lot of free counseling and expensive rehabilitation, what Dr. Phil calls aftercare. The "Dr. Phil" show is a game show for suburbia's walking wounded, psychology's answer to "Fear Factor," but instead of eating spiders you talk about being molested as a child.

On a notional level, the "Dr. Phil" show is about self-help, and yet its message too often is there's nothing wrong with you that a few weeks in luxury rehab can't cure. By corollary reasoning, poor people might as well just steal a shopping cart, roll around in filth and get on with the business of being crazy and homeless.

You could credit Dr. Phil's success to his counseling acumen--many don't, by the way--or his superhuman focus. The taping for this hourlong show took much less than an hour, as Dr. Phil steamed through two couples for whom the honeymoon was over and for whom, by rights, it never should have happened at all. He never required a retake and rarely looked at his notes. At the end of the show he recited a minute-long "tip" into the camera, with perfect school-of-broadcasting inflection and emphasis, timed down to the second. The man is flub-proof. Mr. TV. One-take Phil.

Does this performance bespeak a rigid perfectionist, a workaholic control freak who's foible-phobic? That dog will certainly hunt. Despite his limber amiability, Dr. Phil gives the impression of a guy who puts on his necktie with the help of a socket wrench.

But still, I think his counseling is astute and direct and commendably free of jargon, even if it does amount to training wheels for the brain. I'm grateful that even though he is a cultural conservative from Texas, he refrains from browbeating moralism. It doesn't take much between-the-lines reading to see that Dr. Phil thinks sex before marriage is not a horrible idea, and he doesn't traffic in the awful fiction that homosexuality is a learned behavior. Most particularly, I appreciate that he sticks up for children and tells parents whining about their needs to stop being such awful, selfish monsters. There's a constitutional amendment I can get behind.

Mainly I like him because America is a crazy place. With his "That dog won't hunt" and "How's that workin' for ya?" version of the couch colloquy, Dr. Phil has made psychology nonthreatening, permissible to many who need help but might otherwise dismiss talk therapy as liberal leftist psychobabble.

I only hope we are all cured by 2014.

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