In June of 2007, Dr. Drew Pinsky gathered a group of down-and-out quasi-celebrities of the sort we've been watching on VH1 for years: one-hit wonders, child stars and veterans of other reality series. Thursday marks the reunion of six of the eight "Celebrity Rehab" cast members with Pinsky and his rehab-center counselors, Shelly and Bob.
Viewers have all heard of rehab and have watched celebrities rush into and out of those revolving doors too many times to count. But until this show's delicate and painful demonstration of the reality of treatment, that was often where the story ended.
It's possible that "Celebrity Rehab," in turning VH1's train-wreck camera back upon itself, has brought viewers closer to seeing addiction as a disease.
At least, not many advance naysayers could have predicted how genuinely moving, even uplifting, "Celebrity Rehab" would turn out to be. Viewers were treated within the first few minutes to shots of the has-beens doing hard drugs and getting violently ill. But, as those who remained saw, it was exactly the beginning required.
The show documented Pinsky's process over three weeks, showing everything in painfully acidic detail. While the first episode was giddy, containing more than a little gut-wrenching gallows humor, the second episode, fittingly titled "Detox," showed just how far the group needed to fall before treatment could begin.
Pinsky and his staff at the Pasadena Recovery Center shepherded the cast through a nine-episode recapitulation of the rehabilitation experience, showing viewers what the process entails in a way that the latest glib publicist's press release never will.
From making amends to family members and each other, to the group's last-ditch mini-riot in terrified protest at being discharged back into the real world, the undeniable entertainment value of the show was overshadowed by the real sense of urgency and caring the cast's caretakers inspire. It was Celebreality in a new mode: the celebrity train-wreck genre finding a new maturity as tearjerker porthole into the therapeutic truth of addiction and recovery.
While Daniel Baldwin (of the creepy illicit text messages and snide patronizing approach) won't be missed at the reunion, one breakaway personality certainly will be. Jessica Sierra's path from "American Idol" to "Celebrity Rehab" hit every rock-bottom milestone imaginable. After taping ended last summer, she returned to Florida, got into a bar brawl and pled not guilty to counts ranging from disorderly intoxication to probation violation. She was sentenced to a year's treatment in the Pasadena Recovery Center and three years probation.
But Jeff "Kenickie" Conaway will be attending. In fact, he's shown interest in returning for a second season. This should come as no surprise, as Conaway threatened or attempted to leave the program in nearly every episode (sometimes in a wheelchair and sometimes mid-seizure) and came back almost every time.
Pinsky's respect and affection for Conaway was one of the high points of the season, and a serious sign of just how far a recovery team like Pinsky's will go to prove the point to an addict like this.
If in his leaving and return Conaway represents the ultimate addict, constantly aiming for redemption and failing to achieve it, then Pinsky's continued belief in his potential signifies the ultimate succor and acceptance that drug treatment hopes to provide.
Conaway left the show days before the graduation ceremony due to surgery and the pain medication it would entail. It was a harsh moment in the group's journey: After trying to leave so many times in the grip of his illness, this final departure came from his disinterest in cheating the team's commitment to sobriety.
The reunion, beyond being simply a reality TV staple, is in this case a necessary antidote to the often brutal episodes that preceded it and created such need to see these people conducted safely to the other side. It ended with such a self-determined and chaotic cliffhanger, it would be unconscionable to leave things any other way.
Among happier stories will be that of former porn star Mary Carey, who maintains a healthy interest in politics, and who seems to have held on to her sobriety. While Brigitte Nielsen did not enter sober-living care, she is using outpatient care to combat her alcoholism, and has even publicly offered her home in the California desert as a Britney refuge. Ultimate Fighter Ricco Rodriguez and musician Seth "Shifty Shellshock" Binzer planned to enter a sober-living arrangement together after the show ended.
Besides Baldwin (who left amid allegations of sexual misconduct), the less-stellar post-show stories include that of Joanie "Chyna Doll" Laurer, who indicated an interest in out-patient care at the group's graduation. It is still unclear whether or not the gentle giantess has acknowledged or made progress with her addictions, their underlying causes, or her general bewilderment with the treatment process, but we can expect an entertaining recap of 2008 for her.
One-time "Family Matters" cast member Jaimee Foxworth, who declined sober-living care in the finale with a shower of excuses and gibberish, showed every sign of returning to her drug of choice — marijuana — within seconds of graduation, but her general intelligence and support system outside the facility might just do the trick.
The question seemed to be whether any exploitation can ever have good results. Does recovery in the public eye really even count? One need only watch an episode of "Celebrity Rehab" to see that the work these people are doing is very hard and very real, which obviates the question of exploitation altogether.
If the public eye is addicted to the exploitation that brought these souls so close to death, then isn't "Celebrity Rehab" really a rehabilitative mirror of this train-wreck culture?
When the VH1 cameras that pushed these stars down the holes are given the chance to play a role in hauling them back out again, perhaps a better title would be "Celebreality Rehab." And if not, it's at least a start.
Jacob Clifton is a staff writer for Television Without Pity.