A&E’s Obsessed Strains for Authenticity, Leaves Bowl Empty
Intervention, the hit reality show that tackles addiction and recovery, is compelling like a train-wreck. Tracing the lives of addicts at rock bottom, and the families trying to rescue them, Intervention is gut-wrenching viewing and deserves every one of its awards and ounce of acclaim. Its success has spawned Obsessed, also on the A&E network, which brings the same approach to the subject of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Obsessed is not merely bad, it is terrible enough to cast retrospective doubts on Intervention, too. If it is this bad, I found myself asking, can Intervention really be that good? (Call it the ‘Sixth Sense‘ effect, whereupon the movie’s greatness has diminished with each subsequent M. Night Shymalan film).
The problem with Obsessed is that OCD is an elusive target, and far less cinematic than addiction. There was a moment in a recent episode when one of the protagonists (a compulsive hand-washer and shower-taker) confessed to a decade’s worth of prior drug and alcohol abuse. It was hard not to feel a twinge of longing, like arriving at a New Year’s Eve party too late for the fireworks. Heroin is just more interesting than hygiene.
This problem emerges from an obvious narrative problem inherent in the show’s premise: how can you convey the disordered repetition of mundane acts without mundane repetition?
But the reason Obsessed warrants a mention in this blog about bullshit is not simply that it fails to satisfactorily resolve this question, although it certainly does fail. The central problem with the show is the authenticity meltdown at the heart of it.
The addicts on Intervention are hopelessly scrambled and stupefied by denial and delusion. Their despairing bravado and claims to self-knowledge are palpably, tragically misguided; and their bullshit isn’t fooling anyone, perhaps not even their addled selves.
Obsessed is painful to watch for polar opposite reasons — less tour de force than tour de psychobabble.
The featured protagonists of Obsessed seem far too practiced in the language of clinical psychology, too schooled in the techniques of suffering. A typical observation would be along these lines:
I first developed tell-tale symptoms of my OCD when I was a teenager, at which time I felt insecure about my body image.
My father used to drink, and this numbed me to my surroundings
This therapy-speak rings jarringly false, especially out of such otherwise inarticulate mouths. It has the same deadening effect of a rookie cop describing a crime scene to a judge: sentences cobbled together from half-remembered clichés and recycled platitudes; polysyllabic overreach.
There are times in Intervention, too, when the addict channels Dr Phil in this disconcerting way, but, when they do, it is so laughably inane that it only adds to the sense of tragedy. Fr obvious reasons. the OCD types are more sober and deliberate in their use of language — but they are more knowing, too. The misery is too modulated, and the despair has a by-the-numbers quality.
I had a shrink once who refused to deal with patients with certain diagnoses because he felt the alleged sufferers were con-artists. He explained that there was plenty of research to suggest these behavioral conditions were genuine, but he couldn’t get past the sense that the patients were scamming him somehow.
As my shrink would then point out — and Obsessed is further evidence, if any were needed — there’s no cure for bullshit.