Television has played an integral part in every presidency I’ve been alive for. I remember Walter Cronkite removing his glasses and showing atypical emotion when he announced that JFK had died. I remember the Watergate hearings screwing up the daytime schedule of game shows (everyone has their priorities). I first realized that PBS had presidential coverage as Bill Moyers showed me an alternate Ronald Reagan to the avuncular hero disseminated everywhere else. Television has continued to be our media drug of choice through the “read my lips” term of He-Who-Spawned-a-Moron, the de-liberalizing of the Democrats during the Bubba years, and the full array of Bush Junior — from his verbal gaffes to his oops-I-invaded-a-country boo-boos.
And then came 8:01 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, Nov. 4. The baton has arguably passed from the generation-defining question, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” to that of a new American millennium: “Where were you when Obama was elected?” In a nod to the symbiotic relationship that comedy and politics have had this campaign — The Daily Show and Colbert became the news agency for the burgeoning Youth Bloc of voters, and Saturday Night Live influenced our collective opinion of she-wolf Sarah Palin — I was sitting in front of the tee-vee watching Comedy Central. And I literally wondered, “Are you kidding me?”
I don’t usually indulge in the narcotic that is cable news, but I decided to treat myself to an Election Day binge of CNN and MSNBC, while also refreshing the Yahoo News electoral map every five minutes on that other screen. And when 7 p.m. rolled around, I switched to the live Comedy Central special that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were hosting; their irreverence was a grease-cutting agent against the hologram shenanigans of the “serious” election coverage. And just after their designated hour ended — when they were supposed to have signed off — Jon Stewart mentioned that Barack Obama just won the Presidency. The studio audience went into a frenzy, but I wasn’t sure if it was the set-up to another joke. It took me 10 minutes and some channel-shifting before I realized they weren’t kidding me. And then I exhaled. And then I took stock of it. And then I bawled.
Cable news notwithstanding, TV will continue to provide a social context for our administrations through its non-news programming. This used to be the exclusive domain of scripted prime-time; Dynasty as the mirror of the Reagan years is a prime example. But with the unregulated growth of so-called reality programming, a much more tumescent (and sometimes prescient) form of mirroring has sprung up. At the forefront of this trend is Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
I admit that I had a field day mocking the lurid, drug-addled exhibitionism that was the vainglorious first season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. (I almost feel obliged to always use the full title, in all its unapologetic mawkishness.) But, believe it or not, there is a peculiar gravitas to the second season of this thing. The addicts seem more iconic, the struggles seem more resonant, and Dr. Drew (who now calls himself an “addiction and recovery expert” instead of “addictionologist” or “addictionista” or whatever he called himself last season) embodies a calm, steadying wisdom that makes him seem downright Obamic.
Two of this season’s “patients” (I really don’t know how to refer to them — “stars”? “contestants”? “celebu-drunks”?) bring a special resonance to the proceedings. First is Rodney King, who described the trauma of his LAPD beating on a recent episode. As he mentions the absolute certainty — and expected fatality — of the beating he was about to receive, Dr. Drew shows the surprised disbelief of a white-skinned resident of Los Angeles. King’s is a five-minute monologue on race relations that would be Shakespearean if it didn’t also seem utterly, un-theatrically true. The other unique character is Gary Busey, who wanders dazedly through the early episodes insisting that he is some sort of practitioner instead of a patient.
It is a mad delusion, apparently fueled by the head injury he suffered from a motorcycle crash. But watching his interactions (and contrasts) with the other patients and, particularly, with the rational and rock-like Dr. Drew is almost a capture of the zeitgeist of this transitional moment in American history. Busey is the addict-who-would-be-doctor, standing in for the cowboy-who-would-be-king that has run roughshod over us for two terms; the other patients grow to see through his loud and emphatic façade, as the country has awakened; and Dr. Drew presents the sane and empowered force that just might have a way out of the turmoil.
President-elect Obama, we’re ready for our detox.