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TELEVISION REVIEW

It's truly addictive viewing

'Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew' contains many guilty pleasures, sure, but it's also a potent cautionary tale.

October 23, 2008|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

"Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." Say it with me, people, because it does not get more basic than this.

Like it or not, the VH1 reality show, which enters its second season tonight, is a perfect distillation of popular culture as we know it -- the euphoria-inducing, inarguably addictive grit that is left behind when you boil away all the multicolored distractions of the entertainment media.

"Celebrity Rehab." Where the once rich and famous have, by their own hands and by the power of celebrity itself, become ruined wrecks of themselves, weeping above their untouched meals, vomiting into trash cans and twitching in sweaty sleeplessness in bedrooms so well appointed they contain video cameras.

"Celebrity Rehab." Which last year seemed a live-action version of TMZ, with participant Daniel Baldwin leaving midseason after deeming the place not good for his recovery (it soon was revealed that the married Baldwin had been exchanging dirty text messages with a fellow cast member, the porn star Mary Carey). And Jeff Conaway ("Grease," "Taxi") bolted when he discovered he had to have surgery that would apparently require him to abuse pain medication.

When it premiered earlier this year, many denounced "Celebrity Rehab" and its star, Dr. Drew Pinsky, as exploitative. Finding people so face-down in the celebrity gutter that they would allow themselves to be filmed while detoxing -- how much lower could television sink? Pinsky, of radio's "Loveline," took a lot of hits for his own apparent addiction to the limelight, criticism that grew more serious this summer when it was revealed that three people died (two of overdose, one of suicide) and a woman was raped at the Aurora Las Encinas Hospital, where he is co-medical director.

But Pinsky argues that addiction and recovery are parts of the celebrity narrative that are too often derided or glossed over. Recovery, he says repeatedly, is a lifelong process, and it isn't always pretty.

It certainly isn't, even with this year's surprisingly high celebrity wattage. Actor Gary Busey may consider himself the headliner, but it's Rodney King who made news when he agreed to join the show. Conaway is back, along with former Guns N' Roses drummer Steven Adler, whose drug and alcohol problems are so out there he was actually fired from Guns N' Roses.

Also participating are former "American Idol" contestant Nikki McKibbin, model/actress Amber Smith, and actors Sean Stewart and Tawny Kitaen.

There are many guilty-pleasure-type reasons to watch "Celebrity Rehab." Busey alone provides one -- parading around like some sobriety angel (he sees no problem in his occasional pot-smoking since that wasn't his "drug of choice"), he is so utterly insane that at times you cannot believe he's real.

Likewise watching Pinsky and his staff go through the personal pharmacies of each patient upon check-in is mind-boggling, like listening to a recitation of a junkie's periodic table of the elements. Everyone looks scared and terrible (except Smith, who looks scared and gorgeous), which is reassuring -- unless you are currently scraping the bottom of your own addiction (in which case my prayers are with you) you are probably not having as bad a day as these people are.

But if viewers come for the rubbernecking, they will stay for the pathos. You can fake a lot of things on reality television, but it's hard to fake detox. It is horrifying to watch, and if you want to impress your children about the dangers of drug abuse, the image of Smith writhing and puking on the floor should go far.

More than that, "Celebrity Rehab" mirrors largely the lies many of us tell ourselves about all sorts of things. No one is more nakedly honest about their self-delusions than a bunch of addicts, who will look you straight in the eye (or as straight as their palsied heads will allow) and tell you that they take these pills to only sleep, that they feel no resentment about their mothers abandoning them, that they aren't in recovery because they are recovered, that they don't need any help because they can quit on their own.

Most of us are dependent on one thing or another for immediate gratification. Most of us have fears and fury we would prefer not to discuss. Most of us have done or said things we regret, made choices we wish we hadn't. Which is why we like it so much when the rich and famous take a tumble now and then, why we like to know that people who seem so together are secretly even bigger messes than we are.

Which is why, in some small part of our struggling hearts, we are "Celebrity Rehab."

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew'

Where: VH1

When: 10 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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