Angels with iPods: The Soul of “Celebrity Rehab”

Grace abounds amidst even the guiltiest pleasures.

It’s Lent, so I have a confession to make: I have a weak spot for “celebreality” television.

Regular reality television doesn’t do a thing for me. A show like “The Bachelor,” for instance, in which a group of women live in a house and compete for the opportunity to marry some random bozo, is about as much fun to watch as an episode of “Antiques Road Show” dubbed into Swedish. But when they replace the random bozo with the lead singer of Poison, now there’s a show I can’t help but watch. The concept is just too ridiculous to be ignored. If a B-list celebrity is involved, I’m all over it. And, frankly, the lower down the fame ladder, the better.

Recently, my favorite new show has been “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.” The show chronicles the struggles of a group of celebrity addicts who decide to spend three weeks in a California rehabilitation center, trying to get clean and sober.

Talk about your B-list celebs — some of these people are on the G-list. There’s Jeff Conaway, who had a small role in “Taxi” and the movie “Grease.” There’s Jaimee Foxworth, who played the younger sister on “Family Matters” — a character so inconsequential that she disappeared without any explanation halfway through the show’s fifth season. There’s former “American Idol” finalist Jessica Sierra, who apparently isn’t even famous enough to warrant a mention on the “Celebrity Rehab” Web site. There’s even a Baldwin brother. Nope, it’s not Alec. Nope, not Billy. Is it the crazy fundamentalist guy who used to be on “The Young Riders”? Because he’s pretty G-list. Nope, it’s not him either. Give up? It’s Daniel. Daniel Baldwin. Forget coattails, this guy is riding on his brothers’ exhaust fumes.

How could I not watch a show full of folks like these trying to get off the sauce? Seriously, what could be better for someone with my addiction to has-been voyeurism?

Perhaps it’s the garishness of it, the utter absurdity. Or perhaps it’s the fact that celebrities are easy to look at as other than human, as clowns, so it makes me feel like I’m freer to take pleasure in their foibles. Entertainment is almost religiously revered in our society, so it’s easy to start believing that an entertainer’s whole life is fit for public spectacle.

But I think at the deepest, darkest level, I just like watching people who are going through lousier things than I am. It’s easy to judge celebrities and to feel superior to them, especially when their hunger for attention means that even their efforts at getting sober are made available for mass consumption. Judging people for my own gratification may not be a good or moral thing to do, but it sure is a heck of a lot of fun.

People are basically good, the self-help books and pop psychologists of our age tell us; we do bad things only because we repress our true impulses. I would certainly agree with the first part, but given my penchant for watching celebrities self-destruct, it’s hard for me to see how the second part has any merit. And I’m hardly alone in this. The world is full of indulgence run amok.

We are all sometimes overwhelmed by urges to perpetrate evil for our own pleasure, and to deny that is to deny what we see all around us. “If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

So I sit in my living room, sinfully enjoying the smug feeling that saturates my senses when I watch these celebrity drug addicts dance for the camera. It’s a cheap thrill, but I can’t stop. I’m hooked. It’s too much fun, too much of an ego boost. Their pain is my pleasure. Why should I feel sorry for them? After all, they’ve brought this on themselves. They’re getting paid to be filmed in this condition. Why shouldn’t I take some restless delight in that?

But the funniest thing has been happening. Over the course of the show, it has moved beyond introductions to the celebs and their wild lifestyles and started to focus instead on the underlying issues that have brought these folks to this point in their lives. Film of the daily group counseling sessions reveals their fragile conditions. I’ve seen the pain on Jessica Sierra’s face as she’s talked about growing up with a mother who was out on the street turning tricks. I’ve seen the weight lift off of porn star Mary Carey’s shoulders when Dr. Drew told her she didn’t need to keep putting on the act that she’d been doing for years — that she could just be Mary Ellen, the girl she was before pornography and addiction stole so much from her. I’ve watched Jeff Conaway, puking his guts out on a daily basis, talking about wanting to slit his throat, and yet still romantically longing for scotch and painkillers even though he knows they won’t solve his problems. I’ve seen these celebrities transform before my eyes from clowns into people, children of God who’ve made some poor choices and fallen on some hard times but who are no less valuable than I am, who are no more prone to sin than I am at my weakest moments.

We are broken creatures. It does us little good to run from that truth. Yet out of our worst impulses, God can bring grace. Out of our will to seek destructiveness and death, God builds new life. I set out to watch this show as a guilty pleasure, an exercise in self-aggrandizing voyeurism. Instead, I find myself awakened to just how shallow my intentions have been and just how deep my compassion can go. I may have impulses to choose death, to choose the bad thing that feels so good, but the choice is still in my hands. And God is still there, in the corners of my consciousness, slowly and patiently guiding me to see that the cheap thrill is just a fleeting passion, while the long, hard, narrow walk towards becoming more fully loving is ultimately the only pleasure worth pursuing.

I’m going to keep watching “Celebrity Rehab,” but from now on I’m going to be rooting for them to make it. It’s not about the thrill anymore. It’s about affirming the worth of every human being.

Because everyone deserves a shot at redemption, even one of the lesser-known Baldwins.

Article © 2008 by J-Tron