FOR SHAME

03.11.15 9:43 PM ET

Dr. Phil’s Nick Gordon Intervention Was Despicable, Exploitative Television

The much-promoted hashtag intervention staged for Bobbi Kristina’s boyfriend, Nick Gordon, represented a new low in exploitation television. So why do we keep watching?

In the first moments of “EXCLUSIVE: Bobbi Kristina’s Boyfriend, Distraught and Out of Control: The Nick Gordon Intervention” (real title, LOL and WTF), Dr. Phil tells the mother of said distraught, out of control Nick Gordon, “Your son, left to his own devices, will be dead inside a week.”

A Master of Exploitation not to rivaled, Dr. Phil will tell this poor woman that her son WILL CERTAINLY DIE no less than a dozen more times throughout the course of the ridiculously named episode. Even before Nick Gordon appears for his hashtag intervention—seriously, there was a hashtag, #NickGordonIntervention, should you want to promote this gentleman’s downward spiral on your social media accounts—it is already clear that this episode of Dr. Phil may be the most despicable thing that has aired on television.

And we recently watched Sex Box.

Watching an episode of Dr. Phil is like having the bubbling oil from the fryer at a KFC thrown on you, and then have that jackweed vice -principal from junior high you always hated scream in your ear to “man up!” and “You brought this on yerself!” Dr. Phil’s special trade is to throw all of the pain you could possibly ever feel right in your face, and then, with his chicken-fried squawk, bark obtuse altruisms at you meant to eradicate that pain—but without any personalized nuance to help you really get better.

Worse, he just seems like a Grade-A dick.

Unfortunately, this Grade-A dick scored an interview with our tabloid obsession du jour, Nick Gordon. Boyfriend to Bobbi Kristina Brown, who is alternately referred to as his wife (though they never officially married) and his adopted sister (even though he was never adopted by Whitney Houston), Nick Gordon is the latest victim of our culture’s tendency to turn humans into spectacles at the height of their vulnerability.

Gordon, as it becomes painfully, uncomfortably clear, could not be more vulnerable.

As Dr. Phil repeats incessantly, “left to his own devices” he “will be dead inside a week.” His girlfriend is still nonresponsive after he discovered her unconscious in a bathtub January 31. His attorneys have said that Bobbi Kristina’s father, Bobby Brown, has barred him from visiting Bobbi Kristina in the hospital. In the nearly six weeks since the tragedy, he’s been on a drug and alcohol binge so toxic and concerning that, immediately following his #NickGordonIntervention on Dr. Phil, he was admitted to rehab.

Just reading all of that should break your heart. Watching it on TV, however, has the opposite effect. Gordon’s appearance on Dr. Phil with his mother dramatized his very real troubles to such grotesque levels of exploitation that it was nearly desensitizing. Such a crudely manufactured look at someone else’s pain is numbing where it is intended to be affecting.

Dr. Phil begins the episode speaking to the camera from outside the hospital where Bobbi Kristina is being treated. As he speaks, footage captured on what appears to be cellphone cameras shows Gordon on a dangerous and disturbing bender the night before. “What was supposed to be an interview quickly turned into an intervention,” he says solemnly. He then spends 30 minutes talking to Gordon’s mother, who has not seen Gordon in person since Bobbi Kristina’s incident, who fills him in on hearsay: all the reasons she believes her son is about to kill himself.

She says he is repeatedly calling her or her other son threatening suicide. He had attempted to kill himself with pills, but he had thrown them up before it was too late, she said. All of this is intercut with footage of a Daily Mail reporter (let the legitimacy of that sink in) diagnosing Gordon’s current state. The reporter’s conclusion: He’s a “troubled, troubled man.”

Then a camera follows Dr. Phil as he goes to seek out Gordon in his hotel room. When he gets there, Gordon is wasted out of his mind. Literally out of his mind. He is so, so drunk, and so, so incoherent. It is the saddest thing.

As they make their way to the pop-up “studio” where Gordon’s mother is waiting, Gordon starts weeping in the elevator: “Please don’t put this on TV.” It’s exploitative. It’s abusive. It’s also, of course, riveting television. So riveting (not to mention well-promoted) that here I am writing about it. But this is one of those cases where “riveting television” and the “demise of society” go hand in hand, having a cause-and-effect relationship.

Gordon continues his meltdown when he sees his mother. He begins confessing. “I’ve been drinking. I’ve done Xanax. And that’s it. I’ve been sober besides that.” Dr. Phil says, “You’ve threatened suicide.” It was perhaps supposed to be a question, leading Nick to talk about his feelings. But Dr. Phil forgets the question mark, and instead it comes off as more of a directive, a sort-of TV coaching. Gordon obliges, pledging, “If anything happens to Krissy…I will.” Later, he screams, “I’m going to!” and storms out.

Gordon experiences frenetic mood swings over the course of the interview that are dizzying. When you watch TV shows like this, you often wonder whether people are exaggerating their behavior for television. This is so brutally real that you shake your head, depressed for him and upset at yourself that you’re still watching.

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He crack jokes, and haphazardly storms out of the room on multiple, random occasions. He always returns. “I’m going to seem so weak in front of the world,” he wails at one point, burying his head into his arms. “I can’t believe I’m crying in front of the world right now.”

Why in god’s name is this airing in front of the world? Why is this good TV?

It’s an icky business when real personal, emotional, and psychological trauma is manipulated into a narrative, the ultimate goal of which is ratings. Therapy, psychology, and treatment are noble pursuits, and relating to stories of others as they parse through their issues can be of invaluable service. We watch these people have breakthroughs, and might have some ourselves. But at the core, “ratings” takes everything pure and noble in the endeavor immediately away.  

When Oprah first thrust Dr. Phil on us all—painful as it might be, we all must blame Oprah for this—he was described as a “showman and psychologist,” as if those roles should ever be paired together or, worse, used at the same time. Like “mime and heart surgeon” or “stand-up comic and lawyer.”

At a time when the rise of reality TV was powered by rocket boosters, we were a culture that may have needed some of Dr. Phil’s approach. People needed to be told to shut up and do what they’re told, for their own benefit. To that regard, Dr. Phil represents a shrewd bait-and-switch: Invite, or even beg, people to dial up the most grotesque aspects of their personality and then, after they exhibit deplorable behavior, scream in their face that they’re being dumb.

But when the behavior isn’t dialed up, and instead very real, what do we have? When our morbid curiosity collides with someone like Nick Gordon’s more morbid reality, what’s the value?

Gordon is in rehab now, something that Dr. Phil truly facilitated. The “man up!” mandates worked. But does that mean that we forgive the means to the end?

Throughout the episode, Gordon is compassionate, and often quite hilarious. This is a good guy. A good guy we’ve turned into a tabloid clown. We’ve sent him off to Dr. Phil’s godforsaken circus, to entertain us alongside the litany of other damaged souls we’ve transformed into freak show acts.

We watched this whole ridiculous “EXCLUSIVE: Bobbi Kristina’s Boyfriend, Distraught and Out of Control: The Nick Gordon Intervention” affair, and as long as we keep watching stuff like this—disgusting as we might find them—the circus is going to stay in town. Maybe we’re the ones who need to “man up!” Man up, and stop watching.