Dr. Drew Pinsky may be the Col. Kurtz of the War on Drugs. He's gotten off the boat and set up his own compound for his Celebrity Rehab empire at the Pasadena Recovery Center. Conventional medical practices be damned — he rules a houseful of fame junkies who wander the hallways with a haze in their eyes that says, "If Bai Ling is crawling on the roof, this must be sobriety." The doctor has an original prescription: (1) gather a cast of fragile addicts, (2) expose them to cameras and (3) make them hang with Steven Adler. What could go wrong?
Obviously, it's not like you feel good about yourself when you watch Celebrity Rehab. These people are in rough shape, and you don't have to be a doctor to question whether any of this counts as humane medical care. Even medieval peasants, whose idea of healing involved leeches and bloodletting, knew better than to go through detox while sharing a bathroom with a drummer.
But somehow, the sleaze doesn't seem to rub off on Dr. Drew. This man is definitely the blue in the toilet bowl. He oozes calm and compassion, and no matter how tawdry or exploitative the surroundings, he never loses his patrician cool. By combining America's two favorite addictions — getting wasted and getting filmed — he's built himself into a one-man redemption industry.
Ever since he became a star on MTV's Loveline, his trademark has been to look the viewer in the eye and coax forth the magic words, "Wow, that guy really cares!" That's a more difficult trick than it seems, especially after nearly 15 years. The fact that he chooses to appear in such trashy vehicles? That just makes it seem like he cares even harder!
Every time I watch, I'm impressed by the advice he gives out, and I think, "He must be an incredible therapist." But I also think, "So why the hell is such a sensible medicine man giving Amy Fisher a platform to promote her porn career? Why did he commemorate Corey Haim's death by complaining that he could never get Haim on the show? What does it take to embarrass this man?"
His Mr. Rogers mensch appeal takes a real beating with his new tabloid-headline chat show on HLN. It's straight-up sleaze, but the presence of an M.D. just makes the proceedings more humiliating for all concerned — what is a doctor doing on the same network as Nancy Grace? Nobody blames Pantsuit Nance for this crap — she's an idiot, so how else is she going to spend her time? But it's a worse look for Dr. Drew, because there isn't even the slightest hint of taking the medical high road. He chases the same scandal-slobber stories as everyone else, covering every gory detail of the Casey Anthony trial. He can't pretend there's any therapeutic goal here.
The new season of Celebrity Rehab makes you marvel at how much he gets away with. In recent months, two former cast members have died, Jeff Conaway from Taxi and Mike Starr of Alice in Chains. You'd think that might cast a major shadow over the whole idea of televised detox, right? Yet Drew merely mentions them in passing: "Sadly, this year we lost two of our own. But it only strengthens my resolve to fight this deadly disease."
It boggles the mind. If two Dancing With the Stars vets died in the line of duty — crushed in a fox-trot mishap, or trampled by an enraged pasodoble — it's hard to imagine that wouldn't be a big deal. But for Dr. Drew, it just proves the world needs more of him.
Celebrity Rehab is not exactly the strongest case you could make for rehab, or for sanity, or for celebrity. The star is Steven Adler, the only guy who could get kicked out of Guns n' Roses for doing too many drugs. As for his fellow addicts, they're the usual basket cases, angling for enough screen time to land them on a more upscale reality show. Everybody here knows that they'll get rewarded with screen time if they snap — so they snap, while Dr. Drew keeps acting surprised.
Why is he doing this? That's the mystery. The harder Dr. Drew cares, the more baffling he seems. Despite the fact that he has an admirable ability to point out flaws in everyone else's decisionmaking process, his own decisions led him to Celebrity Rehab and HLN. People watch him, but none of us will ever really know him, and he likes it that way. Someday, soldier, this war is gonna end.
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This story is from the August 4, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.