The Weird World Of Illness Entertainment


Perhaps inspired by the success of shows like Intervention and Hoarders, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, which debuts in January, has commissioned a rehab series of its own, which will revolve around patients in an eating disorder facility. Oh, dear.

Lisa Erspamer, chief creative officer of the network, claims that the series, titled Inside Rehab, “offers perspective, hope, and the possibility to see food-based issues in a new light.” That, of course, is the intention behind every rehab show on television: to show the illness in progress and perhaps illuminate the viewers at home as to the realities behind, say, drug addiction, or an eating disorder, or a hoarding problem, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. The claim is that they are educational, and perhaps even life-saving for those watching at home who recognize similar behaviors in themselves or their loved ones. But let’s not pretend that all of these shows don’t also serve a freak show-esque entertainment purpose: we all watch them the way we’ve been trained to watch them; for the before and the after.

We watch television in comfortable structures: we can often see the punchline coming in a sitcom from miles away, but we laugh anyway. We can figure out the plot of a CSI or a Law and Order 20 minutes in, but we play detective and change our minds and watch knowing that things will either be resolved or left in that super dramatic “sometimes the bad guys win” mode and we’ll get some closure as soon as Dick Wolf’s name flashes on the screen. And we watch rehab shows in the same way we watch makeover shows: the person appears at first to be a mess, and by the end of the show, they look and seem to feel better than ever. A drug addict goes to rehab and is seen smiling on a sunny day a few months later, a hoarder allows a therapist and an organizer into her house and is seen sitting in a clean living room that was once filled with trash, and, I suspect, with Oprah’s show, we will see an anorexic post-hospitalization, eating an ice cream cone or something, and talking about her new lease on life. And we will be satisfied at the conclusion, turn off our screens, and, perhaps without realizing it, start to associate the recovery process with a 45-minute editing process that makes it seem easier than it truly is.

Though it hasn’t been announced which hospital Oprah (who, by the way, is absolutely a terrible role model in terms of having a healthy attitude towards weight and body image, as she consistently yo-yo diets and even goes so far as to note her “embarrassment” over weight gain) will be filming at, I’d like to know which ED recovery program thinks it’s a super-great idea to film active eating disorder patients in the recovery process so that their pre and post recovery bodies will be on film for the entire universe to see, because I honestly can’t think of anything more triggering for someone just out of recovery than seeing one’s body morph over the recovery period. The first thing I did when I got out of the hospital (I was hospitalized for anorexia for a few months several years back) was to rip up all of my “sick” pictures and throw away all of my “sick” clothes, as even though I was in a good place mentally at the time, it only takes one trigger for the eating disorder to convince you that you “looked better” when you were essentially on death’s door, even though when you are mentally in a better place, you can recognize that that isn’t the case.

I have to admit that I’m a bit torn on the show; as a former patient, my alarm bells are ringing and I feel that the entire endeavor may be more exploitative than educational. And yet I also think it might be helpful to show what the ED recovery process is like, and perhaps educate the public on the various reasons why people develop eating disorders in the first place, to somehow correct the misinformation and myths that are out there already. But my biggest fear is that the show, like most rehab shows, will focus too much on the “weird” aspects of the illness and not enough on the actual process of recovery.

And I suppose, in some ways, that’s exactly what the audience is hoping for: nobody wants to watch Intervention without 45 minutes worth of alcoholism being shown, and nobody would watch Hoarders unless there were shots of women sleeping in their own filth. We are fascinated by the illnesses of others and take solace in the fact that things typically seem to work out for the best, perhaps because in some way we like to know that fellow human beings can be pulled out of extremely dark places, that all hope is not lost for people in our own lives who exhibit similar behaviors. But for those of us who are in recovery, the black screen at the end of a television show is not the definitive wrap-up on reality: the process goes on and on and on. One hopes that the audience at home remembers that these are real people they are watching, and that when it comes to mental illness or addiction, it’s not really a makeover—there’s no before and after, there’s only today, today, today.

Oprah Winfrey’s Network To Infiltrate Eating Disorder Clinics [EW]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin