Riveting as a car wreck, “Celebrity Rehab” is the logical extension of VH1’s “surreality” brand — an assembly of TV-created celebrities willing to be debased under the patina of entertainment. Educational only in its unflinching images of drug withdrawal (there’s vomiting aplenty), the show proves as pathetic as it is difficult to turn off, its celebrities leveraging their private suffering as a lifeline to public exposure. VH1 may have another success here, but let’s not kid ourselves: If this works, the channel has simply demonstrated it’s possible to have your cake and snort it, too.
Several of the pseudo-talents featured have already auditioned via bad behavior on programs such as “The Surreal Life.” As such, VH1 has become a breeding ground for “Rehab” participants, though as spinoffs go, it’s not exactly “Andy Griffith” begetting “Gomer Pyle.”
Most of the cast arrive dutifully loaded for their admission to the Pasadena Recovery Center, where they’re placed under the supervision of “Loveline’s” Dr. Drew Pinsky. Although he’s a doctor certified in addiction treatment, watching the show yields a nagging sense that Dr. Drew would staff the local shopping mall’s vitamin store if he thought it would land him a primetime platform.
“Rehab” trots out many of the usual suspects, though none is more disturbing than former “Taxi” co-star Jeff Conaway, who spends the first two episodes a babbling mess, undergoing convulsive seizures.
Conaway is such a basket case that he commands the lion’s share of camera time, even with Brigitte Nielsen, porn star Mary Carey and former wrestler Chyna as company. They are joined by Daniel Baldwin (figured there had to be at least one Baldwin in the bunch), “American Idol” contestant Jessica Sierra, singer Seth “Shifty” Binzer and “Family Matters” alum Jaimee Foxworth. A ninth patient, mixed-martial artist Ricco Rodriguez, joins the dysfunctional doings in subsequent installments.
Pinsky earnestly accentuates the hard work of rehab, and the show’s depiction of drug abuse or chemical dependency is certainly not glamorous. The raw footage of Conaway alone — consistently incoherent and experiencing periodic agony — may be enough to scare the average person sober, or at least make him wince the next time “Grease” turns up on cable.
At its core, though, this is another series cashing in on the seedy underbelly of tabloid-style notoriety — essentially “VH1: Behind the Mugshot.” So when Pinsky informs his charges, “Our job is to make you better,” he’s only telling half the story: Springing for the 21-day treatment program hardly amounts to an altruistic gesture given that the talent provides VH1 with a voyeuristic sideshow act slated for an eight-week run.
So while the title sounds like a joke or latenight spoof, “Celebrity Rehab” is mostly a depressing reminder that when the marching orders are to concoct guilty pleasures capable of stimulating a neck-craning younger audience, nobody rides for free.