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Tough love, minus the love

Why you wouldn’t want to join ‘A Dr. Phil Family.’ By Tara Ariano.
/ Source: Special to

“Dr. Phil” — hosted by Oprah Winfrey protégé Dr. Phil McGraw, known for his gigantic bald melon and his folksy aphorisms — is a classier affair than your average daytime confessional. The guests’ distress is played down, and Dr. Phil’s problem-solving suggestions emphasized. “Dr. Phil” features guests with fairly common problems, and thus is far less exploitative than other shows of its ilk — this is no “Jerry Springer.” At least, until Season Two, when we were all introduced to “A Dr. Phil Family.”

The Dr. Phil Family's ongoing struggle will play out on the syndicated show every Thursday throughout the season. The family is made up of four members — parents Martin and Erin, and their daughters Alexandra, 15 and Katherine, 13.

Erin was planning to divorce Martin when she learned that Alexandra, then 14, was pregnant. The baby daddy, also 14, hasn’t been mentioned since the family’s first appearance on “Dr. Phil” last month, when Alexandra essentially said he had chosen to blow off fatherhood.

In light of Alexandra’s pregnancy, Erin put her divorce plans on hold temporarily while they sort out what to do with Alexandra’s baby. However, that doesn’t mean there has been a rapprochement between Martin and Erin. In the family’s third episode, Erin scoffed at Martin’s claims that, though he admitted to two affairs, he’d never slept with either of his girlfriends; Erin rolled her eyes and spat, “Hello, was he dead?” in a tone of voice that suggested that she either has been spending too much time with teenagers, or is just as immature as one.

We’ve also learned that Martin is one of eight children his mother had with eight different fathers; and is very committed to Alexandra’s keeping the baby, so that he can raise him and correct some of the bad parenting to which he was subjected. Daughter Katherine has accused him of only wanting to keep the baby because it is a boy.

Erin raised her brothers and sisters when her alcoholic mother wasn’t able to do so. She has been trying to convince Alexandra to give the baby up for adoption, fearing that she would be forced to raise Alexandra’s son if Alexandra chooses to keep the baby.

Alexandra herself was initially leaning toward giving the baby up, but has since changed her mind and — as of the time of this writing, anyway — wants to keep him. To help give her an idea of what parenting is like, Dr. Phil supplied her with an extremely realistic electronic baby doll that cries at random and needs to be “fed” and “changed.” Alexandra eventually turned the doll off, yet doesn’t seem able to make the logical leap that you can’t turn off an actual baby.


The last time a real family’s complete meltdown was transformed into buzzworthy TV was in 1973, when PBS aired the 12-part documentary “An American Family.”

Back then, the filmmakers could honestly claim that they had no idea matriarch Pat Loud would inform husband Bill, on-camera that she wanted a divorce; or that son Lance would come out of the closet in the show’s second episode. Alan and Susan Raymond set out to document an average family, and accidentally stumbled onto a domestic powder keg.

In the case of the Dr. Phil Family, the powder keg is the whole point. We wouldn’t be watching Martin, Erin, Alexandra, and Katherine if Marty wasn’t an habitual liar; if Erin wasn’t a chilly control freak; if Alexandra wasn’t a scandalously pregnant teenager; if Katherine wasn’t a helpless passenger on this train of dysfunction, and the only one smart enough to articulate precisely why it’s headed for a crash.

The ostensible purpose of all this is for Dr. Phil to heal the Family’s rifts — sort out the fate of Alexandra’s baby, solve Martin and Erin’s marital problems, force Martin to start being a father to his children. The larger purpose is for all of us to apply the lessons the Family learns to our own lives.

Mangled marriage
But regular viewers of the show can already see that Dr. Phil has a big blind spot with regard to the family’s problems.

Though Erin has said she isn’t taking any steps toward ending her marriage until Alexandra’s pregnancy has been dealt with, that doesn’t mean that she particularly wants to stay married to Martin.

Dr. Phil has been proceeding with Martin and Erin as though they are equally committed to mending their marriage, rather than just advising them — as he has not been reticent about doing with other couples in the past — to part ways.

Dr. Phil’s suggestion, in Part 3, that Erin and Martin should make lists of the 10 things they each want from the other and aren’t getting, meant that Part 4 had Erin demanding “honesty, honesty, honesty, honesty, honesty … And I want to have sex more than once a quarter and it needs to last longer than two minutes.” (Brrrrr.)

Martin, for his part, could do little but parrot the self-help jargon he’d probably picked up by osmosis the first time he walked backstage at “Dr. Phil”: “Love me for the person I am … forgive me for what I’ve put you through; please try to open up to me and be intimate with me once again.” (Martin failed to anticipate Erin’s obvious retort: “It’s going to be really hard for me to be intimate with you when I’m so angry about how you lie.”)

But is he helping?Dr. Phil’s other job — getting Alexandra to make a rational and informed decision about her child — also isn’t working out too well, particularly since the show’s promos keep hammering home the fact that she could go into labor “at any time!”

In one of the ass-kicking-est moments of the series thus far, Dr. Phil harangued Alexandra in Part 4: “I submit to you that you haven’t even almost weighed the two sides of this issue. I submit that what you’ve done is experience your feelings, and there’s fear about the idea of giving away your own flesh and blood into some unknown people’s hands, and that fear has caused you to just close up and say, ‘I’m just not going to do it.’ I don’t think you have considered the alternative at all.”

This is the kind of talking-to that Alexandra’s parents must have hoped she’d get from Dr. Phil, and yet she’s so immature that — as the show displayed a split screen of Dr. Phil laying it on the line and Alexandra listening to him — the viewer gets the distinct impression that nothing he’s said has even penetrated.

If Dr. Phil’s advice carries no weight with Alexandra, as it appears not to do, then what is the point of this exercise, except to exploit her situation for the viewer at home to chortle in glee at the tongue-lashing Dr. Phil gave her?

To the jaded viewer, what makes “Dr. Phil” such a satisfying hour of TV is that, for the most part, his guests have inane problems, the better for Dr. Phil to solve.

His so-called “tough love” approach actually contains a lot of the former and almost none of the latter; that’s why it’s so entertaining when some idiot comes on whining about how she can’t figure out why she’s always late for appointments, or when some other idiot complains that her friend is always gabbing on her cell phone. We want to see Dr. Phil smack them down and move on to the next clueless boneheads.

But when Dr. Phil has to deal with people who have really big problems — too big for the “eight-minute cure” he’s always saying he doesn’t pretend to give — his shtick is less fun to watch.

The Dr. Phil Family may be getting Dr. Phil’s ministrations over the course of the entire season because the good doctor recognizes just how knotty their problems are, and wants to give them the full force of his therapeutic expertise.

Or, their “cure” may be stretched out over the course of the season so that no sordid stone remains unturned, and no writhing vermin escapes the cameras.Tara Ariano co-created and co-edits and