Monday night’s VH1 special, “Charlie Sheen: Winning or Losing It? With Dr. Drew” was a tale of two addicts.
The more high-profile co-dependent, of course, was Charlie Sheen.
But the host of the hour- long program, Dr. Drew Pinsky, may be suffering from his own addiction — to fame. The condition that first broke out several seasons of "Celebrity Rehab" ago, has become a full-on virus since Sheen began his public fall from grace.
When Pinsky’s high-wire balance of medicine and showmanship works, it leads to a trip to the best-seller list or another season of “Celebrity Rehab,” one of VH1’s top-rated shows.
When if falls flat, the consequences can be bad publicity for the media star and his self-help empire – and real human costs.
"It's a public meltdown like we've never seen before – and America seems addicted to it," Pinsky said on Monday's show.
But that's not the only meltdown in the news. On Tuesday Alice in Chains rocker Mike Starr, who appeared on “Celebrity Rehab Season 3,” and seemed to be on the road to recovery after years of substance problems, died of undetermined causes. The 44-year-old had been arrested on the suspicion of drug possession last month in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In Pinksy's defense, his is an affliction that has launched top-rated television shows and several big selling books. Instead of drug pushers and porn stores, Pinsky’s enablers are cable news hosts and journalists eager for a talking head with a stethoscope who will hold forth on the latest movie star train wreck.
For him, Charlie Sheen's meltdown arrives like opportunity knocking. The latest round of Sheen mania could provide the perfect lead-up to his new HLN show “Dr. Drew,” which premieres on April 4.
“It’s entertainment, not psychiatry,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the non-profit Media Psychology Research Center, told TheWrap. "It's not about Charlie Sheen."
Monday night's show, “Charlie Sheen: Winning or Losing It,” occupied a shaky middle ground.
Though the evening kicked off with Pinsky expressing “grave concern” about the actor’s troubles, it also lingered on highlights from Sheen’s most outrageous interviews replete with hazy reenactments of snorting cocaine and pouring whiskey.
Pinsky was able to include several plugs for his “Celebrity Rehab” franchise during the show.
“Dr. Drew is a media personality first and a doctor second. They shouldn’t play up the public service aspect so much, because they're being disingenuous about the fact that this is an entertainment business decision,” Alex Weprin, editor of TVNewser, told TheWrap.
As fans of “Celeb Rehab” know, Pinsky has a substantial background in the addiction field, having worked in treatment centers and with addicts for over two decades.
But in the case of Sheen, some experts say the good doctor’s own craving for the spotlight may be getting the best of his professional judgment.
Substance abuse professionals and psychiatrists say that the doctor has gone too far in exploiting the “Two and a Half Men” star’s recent meltdown. As Sheen’s behavior became increasingly outrageous over the past two weeks eventually leading to his firing on Monday, Pinsky has been ubiquitous, popping up on cable news channels, commenting to print journalists and entertainment bloggers, not to mention churning out Monday night’s special.
And he’s been none too shy about diagnosing Sheen’s problem as Hypomania, which Sheen himself mocked as being unencumbered by facts.
But even mental health professionals say that delivering a diagnosis without observing a patient in a clinical setting over several sessions is a big no-no.
“The effect of it is it devalues the practice of psychiatry. It suggests that anybody reading a paper can decide what’s going on with a person,” Dr. John Mariani, director of the Substance Treatment and Research Service at Columbia University, told TheWrap. “A psychiatrist can say that someone needs treatment and should be evaluated, but beyond that anything is just speculation.”
It’s not as if Pinsky is alone in a turning a medical license into a media career. Other mental health professionals have been a staple on “Showbiz Tonight” and other shows, offering glib pronouncements on Sheen’s downward spiral.
But Pinsky has also seemed riveted by Lindsay Lohan’s career free fall — which TheWrap has covered extensively — telling Radar she should be arrested and tweeting about her various relapses. There are even rumors that cameras from the upcoming season of “Celebrity Rehab” on which Michael Lohan is a guest, will follow the actress’ father into her upcoming court hearing. Beyond a possible ratings bump, it’s not clear what good that would do.
Pinsky has also felt free to label Tom Cruise mentally ill because he ascribed to Scientology, while popping up in everything from "Big Brother" to cameos in "New York Minute" and "Wild Hogs."
Perhaps most damaging, though, is “Celebrity Rehab,” the hit VH1 series that has tracked everyone from Eric Roberts to Gary Busey in their battles to stay clean for four seasons. The C-list actors routinely act out, share intimate details and occasionally fall off the wagon. The only problem, clinicians say is that it’s not the help they need.
“With 'Celebrity Rehab' there is a potential conflict of interest,” Dr. David Sack, chief executive officer of Promises, told TheWrap. “The doctor and treatment team are paid by the production company to create an entertainment. What happens when the ratings for the show depend on confrontation and controversy rather than on treatment? On the other side of things, their ‘clients’, the celebrities are paid to appear. What is their motivation? How much of this is performance art rather than treatment?”