Now that the Casey Anthony case is over -- not guilty on all murder counts, guilty only of four misdemeanors -- will cable news be able to give it up? More specifically, will Dr. Drew?
This case has become cable news' hillbilly heroin and it'll be hard for them to kick. The six-week trial of the 25-year-old Florida party girl accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, letting the body rot in the trunk of her Pontiac Sunfire, then tossing the tiny corpse into a swamp, has been a sickeningly strong ratings booster. Discussions of the case by panels of "experts" have brought so many viewers to Time-Warner's struggling HLN channel (formerly Headline News) that viewership has tripled in some timeslots. Wall-to-wall Anthony trial coverage has filled HLN's daytime hours, followed by constant chatter about it on the channel's prime time shows.
Drawling scold Nancy Grace had already been excoriating "Tot Mom" nonstop on her HLN show for nearly three years (the child, Caylee, was killed in 2008). Bringing HLN hosts Jane Velez-Mitchell and Joy Behar on board raised the volume of the sob-sister cable talk shows whose unifying theme was pegging Anthony as a liar, a slut and a monster and her family as a clan of incestuous, abetting enablers.
The only antidote to the hysterical, screech-owl tone of HLN's coverage was the calming presence of Dr. Drew Pinsky on his new Dr. Drew talk show. Premiering April 4, the show broke up the hen party of the channel's all-female talk lineup and offered something different in its well-known host. Pinsky, a practicing M.D. (unlike his nemesis, Ph.D. holder Phil McGraw), is an expert on human behavior, namely those behaviors associated with abuse and addiction.
He's an affable TV presence, intelligent and attractive without a gloss of smarm. He's a natural as a talk show host, able to nail narcissism at a glance (he co-wrote a book on the subject) and good at interviewing people for a reason most of TV's big-name question askers are not: He actually listens when people talk.
Dr. Drew, as he's known in the media, signed with HLN late last year. He'd subbed many times for CNN's Larry King, but when King retired and his hosting chair went to former British tabloid editor Piers Morgan, Pinsky took the next best thing on sister channel HLN, with a show competing directly with Morgan at 8 p.m. CT.
It's not as if he needed the job. Just about any time of day or night, you can find Dr. Drew somewhere on TV or radio. He's hosted radio's late-night Loveline call-in show continuously since 1983 (it no longer airs on a Dallas station, but does stream live on the internet at midnight Central Time, Sunday through Thursday). He counsels MTV's Teen Moms like the dad they all wish they had. On VH1, the fifth round of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew has just started (9 p.m. CT, Sundays), featuring bottom-rungers (Jeremy Jackson, Bai Ling, Amy Fisher, Michael Lohan, Steven Adler, Sugar Kiper, Sean Young, "Doc" Gooden) willing to detox on-camera in hopes of cleaning up enough to crawl back onto the D-list. There's also Lifechangers, a new daytime self-help/makeover show Dr. Drew will host on the CW network starting in September.
You can find Dr. Drew on Facebook and Twitter, too. And there are in-depth profiles of him that have just run in GQ and Los Angeles magazines. He's everywhere, as ubiquitous and unavoidable in American media as the Geico lizard.
He is also, unfortunately, at the mercy of the dragons who rule his cable talk show. When Dr. Drew started his HLN show in the spring, he announced to viewers that his focus would be exploring what's broken in American culture and trying to fix it. Very lofty for HLN, where his hour was wedged between Grace's "Tot Mom" diatribes and Behar's barky chats with bitter comedians.
For the first few weeks of Dr. Drew, he tried, he really did, talking to sad kids who'd been bullied by classmates and to pushy pageant moms who needed a reality check. On one of his best nights early on, the topic "Can You Pray the Gay Away?" brought the minister from a controversial "ex-gay" therapy camp face-to-face with two young men who'd met at the camp, fallen in love and realized they didn't need fixing. It was a powerful confrontation, steered with smart, gentle prodding by Dr. Drew, and it was great TV.
Sure, Piers Morgan, in the CNN catbird seat, became the place for the big "gets." Morgan got to grill Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern while the bookers for Dr. Drew were scraping for no-name authors and professional blatherers to weigh in on the latest utterances of Charlie Sheen. But at least once a week Dr. Drew would land something right in his wheelhouse, like exposing the prescription "pill mills" that are the scourge of one Ohio town, or talking to Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan about coping with multiple sclerosis.
There were some weird moments, like when he'd reach across and pat the arm of a guest or try to wring tears out of someone by saying "I can see you're getting emotional about this." These seemed un-Drew-like, and more like the cues of a bad director.
Just as the Dr. Drew show was finding its rhythm, however, the Anthony trial became the creeping kudzu of HLN. And as the rehashes of testimony, autopsy results and "smell tests" became part of the nightly script of all of HLN's shows, it was clear that Dr. Drew felt the strain. Almost every night that he was on in June, after more of what he called the "Pamplona footage" showing herds of spectators running to grab courtroom seats, or after some particularly grisly bit of forensics, Dr. Drew would look straight into the camera and say "This is making me physically ill." He'd say it again. And maybe once more for good measure. And he looked like he meant it.
I believed him. I don't think he enjoys doing this kind of television. He's not a legal analyst or a professional scold. He likes helping people solve their problems and he sounds far more relaxed and in control at the midnight hour on radio, answering teenage boys' questions about the mysteries of "pearly penile papules," and advising ninth-grade girls that not only should they not feel pressured into anal sex, it's OK at 14 not to be having sex at all. On Loveline he's America's nicest, least judgmental father figure, patiently walking another dumb kid through birds-and-bees material. On Celebrity Rehab, he's the kind, concerned clinician, affecting his look of "therapeutic wonderment" as "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher pretends not to know what "blackout drunk" means.
On Dr. Drew, he's the mismanaged, over-directed, sick-at-his-stomach puppet of producers who aren't willing, yet anyway, to let him do what he knows how to do. By making him part of the Casey Anthony mud wallow, he's now an accessory to something broken and bad in American pop culture. It made him and us queasy.
As long as his ratings are high, though, he's stuck unless he snaps and becomes Howard Beale (highly unlikely). With the non-stop Casey Anthony stuff, numbers for the Dr. Drew show have topped Rachel Maddow's on MSNBC and tripled Piers Morgan's in the key demo group of viewers age 25-54 (he hasn't beaten Hannity on Fox News, but he's close).
So even though the Anthony trial verdict is in, Dr. Drew will probably have to keep talking about it on HLN for awhile. His bookers are doing their own Pamplona run right now against other networks' news shows, going at everyone associated with the case for interviews. His first big "get" is an exclusive with lead prosecutor Jeff Ashton. Watch for that on The Today Show and HLN.
Immediately after the verdict was read Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Drew popped up on HLN and CNN to comment. "I wasn't that surprised...Casey reminds me of several of my patients. She's a liar and a horrible parent and participated in a cover-up. But they didn't prove that she killed in a premeditated fashion," he said coolly to Piers Morgan. (Meanwhile, Grace was screaming that the "devil was dancing" at the not-guilty verdict.)
Dr. Drew predicted that Casey Anthony would try to "monetize" her fame as soon as she was released from jail. Asked what he thought of the champagne-popping celebration by Anthony's defense team, Dr. Drew added this: "Whenever I see defense teams giving displays of joy and celebration when so much is at stake and the issues are very questionable, I have an intense feeling of disgust."
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Like what you've read here? Critic Elaine Liner will continue to write about what she's watching, hearing and reading in this new weekly column about pop culture and media.