The Bookmobile: An Excerpt From "Reality Matters: 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows We Can't Stop Watching"
Reality TV: we all have feelings about it. Particularly the contributors to Reality Matters: 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows We Can't Stop Watching, a new collection edited by Anna David. It includes essays by Awl pals Will Leitch, Richard Rushfield and Mark Lisanti, among others, so you should probably buy it. In this excerpt, John Albert discusses his feelings about "Sober House."
There are times when one can glimpse something like a passageway to hell. That is precisely the feeling I had watching the reality show "Sober House." It was as if a wormhole had opened leading directly from my couch into a tawdry Hollywood where troubled celebrities will humiliate and debase themselves, even risk death, for one more moment in the spotlight. Throughout the years, I have perused on-screen murder scenes and televised surgeries, even watched multiple seasons of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." But this show genuinely disturbed me. These were not bullet-riddled bodies or sunburned Republicans with fake boobs. They were people whom I recognized, both literally and figuratively, and it left me troubled.
The truth is, I have been addicted to reality television for years. Until recently, I simply hid this fact. People would discuss what they had done the previous evening, reading books or watching foreign films, and I would simply lie. I would tell them I had spent hours viewing savage Internet pornography or simply curled up in the fetal position weeping. Anything was more palatable than the truth: that I had sat for hours on my couch and watched reality television. And I'm not talking about the few socially acceptable shows like "Project Runway" or "Top Chef." Like most addicts, I had long since turned to the hard stuff. In the early years, I was able to convince myself that watching seminal shows like "Cops" and "The Real World" was merely a form of social observation not unlike viewing documentaries such as Nanook of the North or The Sorrow and the Pity. That became distinctly less believable as I watched hefty actors being weighed on a giant egg scale during "Celebrity Fit Club."
So what draws me to shows where fading celebrities are humiliated for the sake of entertainment? Is it the vindictive pleasure of watching previously anointed ones tumbled unceremoniously from their thrones? That's definitely possible and I'm not at all immune. There was a night in my late teens when I went to deliver a small parcel of cocaine for a local drug dealer. I arrived at the designated address and was surprised to find the homecoming king and queen of my high school huddled in an empty apartment, paranoid and nearly broke. Oh, how the mighty had fallen, I remember thinking, as I left with their last few dollars. I think for some people there is a similar jolt of superiority in watching a show like "The Surreal Life," where someone like Motley Crue singer Vince Neil is reduced to performing in a childlike talent show with Emmanuel Lewis from "Webster." I'm also aware it could simply be my own sadistic tendencies. Fair enough.
But then, while watching "Sober House," I suddenly hit bottom. Something felt noticeably different. The show is a spin-off of the series "Celebrity Rehab" and follows seven down and out celebrities as they attempt to stay off drugs while living at a sober living home run by radio personality and addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky. Perhaps the reason "Sober House" affected me when other shows couldn't is that I can relate to that world. After finally kicking drugs and alcohol for good back in the eighties, I actually did a stint working at a rehab facility. I know well the insanity of those places. Besides the near weekly drug relapses, there was sex between staff and patients, more than one suicide, and an epic fist fight between two staff members after one insinuated that the other's girlfriend had been spotted at the "Toto house," a near legendary site of cocaine fueled hedonism owned by a now-deceased member of the popular soft rock band Toto. I also know some of the people on the show. Counselor Bob Forrest is an old friend from the LA punk scene. When I was sixteen, he watched, unmoved, as I took off my clothes and stumbled into a swimming pool while overdosing on Quaaludes. In my world, that's like going to college together.
I would like to believe I was vastly more serious about my recovery then the people on the show, but the fact is, I acted just like them. I used drugs in every rehab except for the last, and once jumped out of a second-story hospital window (I was aiming for a tree) wearing a flimsy hospital gown and no pants in a desperate attempt to get high again. Nothing says stoic self-control like picking twigs out of your ass while trying to flag down cars.
John Albert grew up in Los Angeles. As a teenager, he co-founded the cross-dressing death rock band Christian Death, then played drums for seminal punk band Bad Religion. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Blackbook, Fader, and Hustler, among others. He has won awards for sports and arts journalism and has appeared in several national anthologies. His book, Wrecking Crew (Scribner), which chronicled the true-life adventures of his amateur baseball team-comprised of drug addicts, transvestites and washed up rock stars-has been optioned by studios three times so far.
You can purchase Reality Matters here.