Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daytime talk show, Dr. Phil, is fairly standard for a show in the Phil Donahue-Oprah Winfrey help-the-masses-through-individual-examples mold. The stage is plush, the guests are teary-eyed, and the studio audience is mostly female -- and mostly overweight. But this season, Dr. Phil will take a departure from the tried-and-true formula perfected by his forebears.
Yes, Dr. Phil has joined the reality-TV revolution, just a smidge behind the curve.
Because Dr. Phil has 175 hours to fill in a season, as opposed to the ten or so TV hours that most reality shows get, he's casting a pretty wide net. In conjunction with his new book, The Ultimate Weight Solution, he's put cameras in the homes of 13 overweight Americans in order to follow their weight-loss travails for ten months. When Dr. Phil spots a whiner who's not working hard enough, he shows up unannounced to castigate his charge and bring him back into line.
Of course, since just scolding people into modifying their behavior might not be entertaining enough by itself, the dieters have been pitted against each other in a Survivor-style competition for as-yet-unnamed prizes. This detail seems less than benign -- one can imagine that a fatty who earns Dr. Phil's displeasure before being banished from the weight-loss challenge might give up on slimming down, and whose fault would that be?
Dr. Phil also has cameras following a few fucked-up families as they try to cope with marital problems, money troubles and daughters who come home pregnant. He's keenly aware of the entertainment value in this series of shows -- and also its lineage. As he has said, "I guess it's kinda 'Dr. Phil Meets The Osbournes.' "
Yet another series of shows has cameras poking into the developmental stages of very young children, with the aim of straightening out the parents' mistakes. And Dr. Phil sure knows the reality-TV drill: "We're gonna put cameras in their homes, we're gonna put cameras in their cars, we're gonna follow 'em all year and see what happens." Invasive? Sure. Life-altering? At least while the cameras are there. Helpful? Well, that remains to be seen.
We at the Press would have liked to ask Dr. Phil some questions of our own about just what the hell he thinks he's doing for these people who have come to him for help. Perhaps he would have worked his Southern-fried, big-daddy charm on us. Although we were initially promised an interview with the good doctor, his media relations minions at Paramount reneged, instead providing us with a transcript of his big-time preseason press conference. Perhaps you'll have better luck getting answers from him if you go to see Dr. Phil's Get Real Tour, which stops in Houston this week.
Of course, the Dr. Phil show is just TV. The participants are willing. And no one on the Dr. Phil side, least of all Dr. Phil himself, is pretending what he does on TV is therapy. As he said at the press conference, "Some guy asked me in an interview the other day, 'Well, well, Dr. Phil, isn't some of what you do just entertainment?' Like that was a bad thing. And I said, 'Well, of course it is.'"