Dr. Phil was never a television show I voluntarily watched. But last Thursday, when Dr. Phil McGraw had an intervention episode for Jael Strauss, a former contestant on America's Next Top Model-turned-meth addict, I was drawn in. I had learned about the episode before it aired after reading blog posts on Gawker and Jezebel, two sites not normally prone to Dr. Phil coverage. The YouTube clip showing Strauss in a meth-induced manic episode garnered over 800,000 views. After the clip was posted, the press was agog: In addition to Gawker and Jezebel, the story was picked up by the Huffington Post, ABC News, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
But the Jael intervention was topped by Monday's hour-long, fascinating trainwreck featuring an unhinged Dina Lohan alternately sobbing, flirting, and fighting with the host. At one point, she tried to give McGraw a fist bump-that is, when she wasn't busy flipping off the camera.
Dr. Phil is already the top-rated talker, but the man Oprah plucked from Texan obscurity has never made it to Internet watercooler status-random, pregnant teens might make for good ratings, but they don't touch on celebrity tabloid culture: and they don't make you buzzy. But last week, I found myself setting the DVR to "record" and was actually waiting with bated breath for the promised Dina Lohan meltdown. He's still presenting a variety of topics and guests. Last Friday's show featured Trayvon Martin's parents-a counterpoint to last Tuesday's "Friends of George Zimmerman" episode-and was, predictably a three-hanky affair.
The momentum continues to build. On Thursday, he's got Robert Blake on the calendar. Blake, who stood trial for killing his wife and was acquitted, never took the stand during the trial, but will submit himself to an interview with Dr. Phil. A preview shows that Blake has a crazy mood board rivaling Carrie's from Homeland.
Something's definitely changed in Dr. Phil's booking room-and I like it. Maybe there's a savvier, younger producer on staff; maybe it's because the PR firm handling the show has gotten ahead of the news cycle by sending out clips a day or two in advance, building anticipation. I tried to find out-asking for interviews with producers, booking agents, publicists, and even McGraw himself, to no avail.
I'm not the only one who has noticed the change. Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak, who has been blogging about the show's recent episodes, also thinks Dr. Phil is on a roll. "I'm not in this demographic, [but] I'm caring about him and I feel like a lot of other people are who never would have cared about him before, care too," he said. "I think mixing in low level celebrities with his weird on-air therapy is a really good mix, a really good use of his medium."
Though Dr. Phil is sitting pretty as the No. 1 syndicated talk show, his perch is threatened by Katie Couric's foray into the field: she had the highest debut ratings in the genre in more than a decade, so going viral is a smart move. McGraw told Inside Edition recently: "If you can create buzz on the Internet so that your presentation lives beyond the window where you made it, then you have hit a homerun."
Indeed, a look at Twitter's trending topics via Topsy.com reveals an uptick in Dr. Phil-related chatter: The aftermath of the Lohan episode has already garnered more than 8,000 tweets; the Strauss intervention garnered more than 5,000 tweets, and overall "Dr. Phil" has been the subject of more than 45,000 tweets in the past seven days. (Compared to "Katie Couric"-which has only been mentioned 8,000 times.)
The actual show turned out to be even more disturbing and horrifyingly entertaining than the one-minute clip. The pre-taped intro showed the mother of Lindsay Lohan in a totally different-and more familiar-guise. She was tough, straight-talking, and wanted to do the interview to clear the air about how she is viewed as the worst mother in the world.
But, as Dr. Phil said at the outset, "What I thought would be a normal interview with struggling mom turned into something else."
From the start, Lohan was a squirming mess-writhing in her chair, asking whether the cameras were rolling, shielding her eyes from the light, and giggling like a teenager as she said she felt like she and Dr. Phil were on a date. In short, she was a nearly mirror image of her troubled daughter. She seemed out of it. (Through a representative, Dina Lohan declined to comment for this story.)
When he began to question Lohan about the alleged abuse she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, Michael (who came on later and denied that he had repeatedly hit her, owning up only to one isolated incident), she began to cry and disassociate, uttering nonsensical statements that McGraw challenged. When he asked about an alleged incident involving Michael Lohan entering the home, and whether she had called anyone, she began to sob and said, "Cell phones weren't as inept as they are now."
Lohan wanted the line of questioning to end, but didn't like the new questions, either, especially those that pointed out what a mess her most famous child had become. "Can I go home now?" she pleaded. She scoffed at McGraw's shoes and at one point uttered, apropos of nothing, "God, it's so quiet in here."
Strauss's episode was also compelling television. And moving, too. Her once beautiful face was now disfigured from the skin-picking habit that plagues so many addicts. Though she is only 28 years old, she looked 50. When it was time for her to meet the audience, she ran outside and crouched behind a Dumpster. McGraw joined her, coaxing her to take part in rehab (on his dime), and to face the audience, which was waiting inside to cheer her. (She did.)
What's interesting, too, about Dr. Phil's shifted focus is that his style-which can be hectoring and bullying-works in his favor as an interviewer with people like Lohan who are not playing ball. He's not afraid to push back when they deflect, something that as a journalist who's had to deal with unwilling or difficult subjects, I admire and envy.
The long stretches of Lohan twitching in her seat, and asking whether the cameras were rolling that would have been edited out in the usual highly scrubbed celebrity interview. And when she wouldn't answer questions, he'd pointedly say, "Why are you here?" or "You've spent more time talking about cameras, light, sound than anybody." He called her answers a "dodge," and asked patiently, "Let's have a few minutes of authenticity." He said that she did the show to get people to know her, but instead, "You've distinguished yourself in the negative by being phony and inauthentic." If only most celebrity interviews were like this.
Throughout the Lohan interview and Strauss appearance, I found myself siding with, and even-gasp-cheering for, Dr. Phil. When he's tough with an unknown, small-town guest, it's hard not to side with the guest. But when he's bearing down on a celebrity, McGraw seems like the sane person in the room. "I think he is very highly skilled in what he does," said Juzwiak. "Whether what he does is abhorrent or not is a different question."
When Jael Strauss collapsed into his arms crying, I understood how McGraw could seem comforting and reassuring, especially when compared with the company she has kept, including her mother, who had done cocaine with her. He was like a big teddy bear-a tough Texan teddy bear, but still. "He's really a master manipulator," said Juzwiak. "The best interviewers are manipulators."
Dr. Phil-not a monster? Was it possible? I told a friend, "I think I have Stockholm Syndrome."