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Does Dr. Drew Need an Intervention?

Since Mindy McCready's death, the "Celebrity Rehab" doctor has been compared to Jack Kevorkian. Here, a sober look at Dr Drew Pinsky from our 2011 profile

Is he a miracle worker or media mooch? That’s the question Steven Mikulan set out to answer in this July 2011 profile of addictions specialist and star of VH1’s reality program Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Just a year and a half later, the apparent suicide this week of troubled country singer Mindy McCready—the fifth Celebrity Rehab alum to die—is once again raising questions about the show, its hero, and the tragic consequences that can accompany fame and fortune. A second look at the man at the center of a tragedy

Dr. Drew Feels Your Pain

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

There were few cozier refuges from the world’s troubles on March 29 than the patio of Katana, the sleek Japanese restaurant hidden above the Sunset Strip, where HLN, CNN’s sister network, threw a party for its newest talk-show host. As twilight dimmed to dusk, DRDREW was projected in white stencil font on one side of the building, while the cable network’s logo glowed on the opposite wall like initials from a branding iron.

Drew Pinsky, M.D., is instantly recognizable, with his look of permanent concern, stylish glasses, and short silvery hair that could be called “mentor gray.” He is known as “Dr. Drew”—which is also the name of his new show. On this spring night he chatted with well-wishers as Tom Arnold, Andy Dick, and Gloria Allred each schmoozed their way through the patio’s crowd. Tall and impeccably attired in a dark suit and striped tie, the 52-year-old physician held a tumbler of Diet Coke as other guests sipped cocktails or Hitching Post pinot.

“I’ll have a glass of wine,” he admitted after I asked whether the man TMZ called “the world’s most famous addictions specialist” ever imbibed. “If I have more—” he rolled his eyes and shook, pantomiming someone who’s lost control of his mind and body. It’s the  most animated I had seen Pinsky since first meeting him last December. Although his tightly controlled, no-nonsense mien is a critical part of Pinsky’s public image, up close there is nothing about him that seems phony; his affable persona and relaxed body language come off as completely genuine.

USC professor Leo Braudy, in his study of fame and celebrity, The Frenzy of Renown, called Freud’s refusal to be filmed “an almost archaic gesture of sensitivity.” Pinsky is a product of his media-saturated time and the opposite of Freud. He is filmed, taped, or recorded almost every day of the year. The fifth season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which began airing in June, had just wrapped, and this fall he will debut the advice show Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers on the CW’s daytime schedule. Apart from occasional roles in specials and visits on Teen Mom, Pinsky’s series have included Sober House, Strictly Dr. Drew, Strictly Sex with Dr. Drew, Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, and Sex…with Mom and Dad. But it’s not only the programs Pinsky hosts that have made him a TV star. It’s the guest spots on entertainment and talking-heads shows, where he is often introduced with the mantric line “a practicing physician who is board certified in internal and addiction medicine”; it’s the Twitter account with 2 million-plus followers; it’s a cross-country lecturing schedule and appearances on Hollywood’s red carpet circuit.

From the start of his public career on the radio program Loveline, Pinsky’s professional expertise and rational demeanor set him apart from hyperventilating peers in the commentator business. Today’s media landscape is thick with querulous authorities, many of whom are known by only their titles and first names. Yet unlike a Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, or Dr. Laura, Dr. Drew is not a condescending scold who’s built a reputation by humiliating guests or giving them verbal neck rubs. Pinsky is a medical doctor (which Drs. Phil and Laura are not), and to his fans his opinions carry the imprimatur of hard science rather than emotion or political correctness. This has made him the ideal candidate for media stardom.

Backlash has been inevitable. There are those who find his recurring appearances in the Guest Expert’s chair too predictable; others see in his TV programs the shadow of addiction tourism. The man in the tight blue shirt has been called a fame junkie and a manipulator of other people’s misery. But not even his detractors, among them television reviewers, addiction specialists, and former cast members of Pinsky’s shows, can dispute the buttoned-down doctor’s improbable omnipresence. Pinsky doesn’t practice the medical diplomacy of celebrity surgeon Sanjay Gupta, yet he quite possibly enjoys greater name recognition. He has parlayed a nerdy charm to become the dominant broadcast arbiter on issues of addiction, narcissism, and celebrity misbehavior. And that, to some, is the problem.

Dr. Timothy Fong, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of UCLA’s Addiction Medicine Clinic, believes he knows why Pinsky has become a contentious figure. “Dr. Drew,” Fong says, “needs to decide what he is first. TV executive producer, doctor, media mogul—how does he want to be identified in the world?”


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

For five months leading up to the Katana party, Dr. Drew’s PR campaign had built up Pinsky as a tackler of controversy who was going to ask uncomfortable questions about the issues troubling Americans. Last winter Pinsky told me he wanted Dr. Drew’s premiere to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold together: two show-business pals (one of whom had recently been governor) sitting around talking. Then Pinsky said his program would be about current events, as dissected by visiting celebrities and newsmakers. As the months passed, however, the idea of what exactly Dr. Drew was to be shifted. By February he was explaining that there would be less celebrity emphasis and, instead, daily panels of experts and commentators.

“So who will be your first guest?” I asked Pinsky at his Katana party.

“Sammy Hagar!” answered his wife, Susan, who was there along with the couple’s 18-year-old triplets.

“Very funny,” I said. “No, really —who’s the first guest?”

One week later the former Van Halen singer helped Pinsky launch Dr. Drew’s premiere, plugging his new book as Pinsky tried to tackle him with questions like “Is there anything you can’t do?” 

Pinsky has written and spoken extensively about the corrosive effects of celebrity culture and narcissism and against the degrading blogs and YouTube videos that amount to virtual mob stonings of celebrities. He has especially warned against Faustian deals struck with the media by entertainers hungry for the spotlight. His 2009 book, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, traced the self-destructive addictions of Millennials to their infatuation with outrageous celebrity behavior. Coauthored with Dr. S. Mark Young, the book grew out of a 2006 peer-reviewed article the two men published in the Journal of Research in Personality. “Nothing,” Pinsky explained in one chapter, “demonstrates a celebrity’s basic drive for attention more powerfully than a willingness to check one’s dignity at the door, week after week, in front of millions of viewers.” He was discussing “the former stars who continue to sign up for celebrity-based reality shows like The Surreal Life…,” but he also could have been describing the dynamic of his most successful show, Celebrity Rehab.

Pop-media critic Jennifer L. Pozner calls Pinsky “a pompous in-house blowhard.” Pozner, who wrote the book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, blasts Pinsky’s spreading influence on “corporate media as a go-to expert on all things psychological.” Indeed, in the past half decade Pinsky has become CNN’s default authority whenever A.J. Hammer wanted to know about the dark side of comedians or Joy Behar needed a few calm observations on the subject of sex addicts. “The reason I do that stuff,” Pinsky tells me, “is because I want to be present on the cultural landscape, so I’ll get the opportunity to do the things I really want to do.” Namely, to enlighten the public about the dangers of addiction and star idolatry, which is where his recovery shows come in.

Filmed at the Pasadena Recovery Center, whose polished wood exterior has become as familiar to fans as the Waltons’ porch was to an earlier generation of TV watchers, Celebrity Rehab is Pinsky’s most popular series yet for VH1. In the show the doctor, with the help of drug counselors Bob Forrest and Shelley Sprague, oversees the treatment of eight patients of varying addictions and levels of fame. These patients bunk together for 21 days, discuss their demons, and bicker in a setting that resembles a human ant farm, seething with personality clashes and tearful reconciliations. It’s impossible to fall behind the program’s narrative arc—nearly every five minutes the screen explodes with the same teaser footage showing a moment of high drama. Past “cast members” have included Rodney King, Mackenzie Phillips, and Dennis Rodman. The producers even cast Heidi Fleiss in the same group as her ex-boyfriend, Tom Sizemore, who’d previously been sentenced to six months in jail for beating her.

The program’s rather generous use of the term “celebrity” is but one of the charges that have been lobbed against it. Several of Celebrity Rehab’s participants have merely been the relatives of entertainers or rich people, such as Lindsay Lohan’s father, while others, like Amy Fisher, are famous-for-being-famous inmates of America’s tabloid Phantom Zone. The show’s description of “addiction” can seem equally pliable, especially in the cases of “love addict” Rachel Uchitel and pot smoker Eric Roberts—to say nothing of people like Gary Busey or The Hills star Jason Wahler, who both claimed after their seasons concluded to have entered the show already sober. “By creating semi-arbitrary distinctions,” wrote Salon columnist Drew Grant, “of what is and what isn’t a life-threatening ‘addiction’ and allowing that to become the main issue of the show, those in the cast battling drug problems become secondary, even though they remain most at-risk.”


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Pinsky justifies the use of celebrities—whatever their wattage—on the grounds that they draw in more viewers than anonymous patients would, and by doing so educate a larger swath of the American living room. It’s similar to his rationale for paying the stars to get sober: With no special treatment, there would be no celebs; with no celebs, there’d be no viewers. “What people forget,” says UCLA’s Dr. Fong, “is that these shows are shows—they’re entertainment. If it’s gotten people interested in treatment, I say that’s terrific.” Fong does, however, have qualms about whether Pinsky is able, given his schedule, to keep up with the latest research, and he is disturbed by Pinsky’s public opposition to Suboxone, an opiate blocker widely used to treat heroin addicts. To Pinsky, such treatment amounts to swapping one drug for another. “I’ll see people,” says Fong, “who he’s treated and have them tell me, ‘But Dr. Pinsky’s told me not to take Suboxone.’ He’s forgetting the fact that it saves thousands of lives. The weight of his words is enormous.”

*****

By becoming a doctor-performer, Pinsky followed in the footsteps of both his parents. His mother, Helene Stanton, was an opera singer who later sang in Vegas nightclubs, then briefly acted in low-budget films in the 1950s, such as the noir classic The Big Combo; his father, Morton, was a family physician who’d moved west from Chicago and eventually set up a practice in Pasadena, where Pinsky grew up.

When Pinsky was one, his mother suffered a miscarriage and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Pinsky maintains that the trauma of that event gave rise to a recurrent childhood nightmare in which he was chased by a man with red crosses in his eyes. “I grew up with a feeling that there’s a catastrophe waiting around every corner,” he wrote in Cracked, his 2003 fictionalized account of working in a rehab clinic. “I can’t remember a time when I have not felt anxious. My response has been to try to control everything and everyone. I am a perfectionist. I rescue people.” Today Pinsky says he has put the urge to control behind him. “After ten years of personal therapy, it magically ceased,” he tells me.

He has been married to Susan for 20 years. Both are nonobservant Jews—his religious upbringing was confined to a year of Saturday school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “All I can remember from that time is that afterward we would all go to the amusement park where the Beverly Center is today,” he says. “They had the best rides.”

The couple lives ten minutes from the Pasadena Recovery Center in a five-bedroom Tudor-style house among the oak-shaded hills near the Rose Bowl, where their triplets (two boys and a girl) are readying themselves for college. When he has the time, Pinsky takes long morning runs along the Arroyo as he listens to university lectures on his iPod. Three mornings a week he works at his private medical practice from 8:30 to 11:30 (he’s been scaling “way back” because of his television gigs), and every weekday drives to the Hollywood CNN building, where he tapes Dr. Drew from 2 to 4 p.m. This is followed by “odds and ends,” such as interviews and photo shoots, before he heads back to Pasadena and visits patients from his practice who are at Huntington Hospital, where he is on staff. “My goal after that,” he says, “is to spend time with my wife and eat dinner with the kids. Then I’ll work out with my sons.” There’s more: the 9 p.m. drive to Culver City to broadcast Loveline, which ends at midnight.

In 1983, when he was a 24-year-old medical student at USC, Pinsky lived a block from what were then the Pasadena studios of FM rock station KROQ. One day he received a phone call from a friend of a friend who worked there, telling Pinsky the station wanted him to add a little medical expertise for a single episode of Loveline, a new late-night weekend program in which DJs “Poorman” Jim Trenton, Scott Mason, and Swedish Egil gave young listeners the chance to ask questions about the consequences of getting laid and high.

Pinsky armed himself with a gynecology textbook and his infectious diseases manual. “I had never heard of the show,” he recalls. “But afterward I freaked out and had an epiphany: This radio show is where people are coming for information about sex and venereal disease!” Pinsky believed that it was his duty to perform a community service by volunteering for every Loveline. Because he wasn’t considered a regular, at first he had to stand outside the studio in the hall until he was needed to answer a question. “I got to watch the band Berlin in another studio while waiting for them to call me in to answer a caller question,” he says. “It was the Wild West back then.”


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Pinsky’s deadpan intelligence made him the perfect foil for a string of loutish cohosts whose buffoonery gave the doctor’s buzzkill drone a strange appeal. He was loose enough to roll with their scatological jokes or off-the-cuff dating advice but had the backbone to steer clear of the humor himself. His nothing-human-disgusts-me candor let him be a confidant of kids coming of age in the era of AIDS and speed.

It wasn’t until 1996, when Loveline began to air on MTV for a four-year run, that television producers grasped what lay behind Pinsky’s charm: the trim physique, his ageless good looks, a seeming inability to be flustered. These days Loveline is broadcast Sunday through Thursday from Westwood One’s Trojan Studio in Culver City to about 50 radio stations nationwide. The large and somewhat chilly room has a black leather couch and a huge poster board advertising the sponsor’s Fire & Ice line of condoms. Calls come in to Pinsky and cohost “Psycho Mike” Catherwood from around the country: A worried young man has lost his attraction to women after one urinated on his face in bed. A woman says her boyfriend is afraid her IUD will cut into his penis. “Jessica” wants to know whether a pierced clitoris will increase her sexual sensitivity. Pinsky’s answers are disarming for their simple clarity. “Dude, that’s a passive suicide!” he says to a caller after the man tells him “I’ve given up on life” and is not having safe sex.

The radio show can be a wonder to behold—a mixture of town hall meeting, improv club, and fortune-telling session. Catherwood, a 32-year-old KROQ producer and recovering addict, is the show’s ringmaster, but it is Dr. Drew whom the young people call for advice. Many of their questions seem as old as sex, and underlying most of them is another, unspoken query: Am I normal? The new century has brought new questions, however, and Pinsky tells me that in recent years he’s been getting far more calls about anal intercourse than before and that a growing number of listeners’ drug problems stem from abusing prescription medications as opposed to street drugs.

Loveline and a moonlighting gig treating addicts at Las Encinas Hospital, in Pasadena, led Pinsky from orthopedics to addiction medicine. Today Pinsky serves as assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. For years he was also medical director of Las Encinas Hospital’s chemical dependency program, where he brought Keck students to learn the symptoms and behavior of addicts.

The night I sit in on the program, the eeriest moment comes when a woman phones in with a question about her relationship with an emotionally detached boyfriend. As he often seems to, Pinsky traces the caller’s troubles (in this case, binge drinking, boyfriend beatings) to childhood sexual trauma. “I’m guessing you were 11 when this abuse happened?” Pinsky cuts in. “Well, yeah,” the woman replies in wonder. He ascribes his intuition to the tone of the caller’s voice and the identical symptoms that have been described to him for nearly 30 years. “Trust me, I know,” he tells me later. 

*****

It’s 2:30 p.m. and Bob Forrest is running late for his meeting with me at a Sunset Boulevard Starbucks. Before becoming better known as the drug counselor on Pinsky’s two VH1 recovery shows, Forrest was the front man for the post-punk band Thelonious Monster, a fixture on the local club scene in the 1980s and ’90s. Wearing the horn-rimmed glasses and wide-brimmed hat he has sported on both series, Forrest has just come from hashing matters out with a recovery facilitator who’s been charging admission to 12-step meetings.

“Malibu has changed the whole recovery business,” Forrest tells me, referring to the emergence of coastal rehab retreats with such perfume-brand names as Promises, Passages, and Seasons—moneyed oases where it’s possible to spend nearly $90,000 for a month of care that includes gourmet meals, equestrian therapy, and even the occasional glass of wine. The so-called Malibu Model has raised the price of recovery and the expectations of some of the addicts who need it. Forrest says he once told a patient the amount of the man’s bill for rehab services, only to have the patient add an extra zero on the check because he assumed Forrest had made a mistake. “The whole helping industry has gotten so profit driven that there are no resources for poor people,” he says. Last year Forrest opened his own outpatient center, Hollywood Recovery Services, whose fees, he says, are aimed at working-class budgets.


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Forrest first met Pinsky in 1987 as a guest on Loveline, where Pinsky confronted him on air about his folkloric history of drug abuse. “I thought that was kinda rude,” Forrest recalls. “I mean, I was a guest.” The musician was such a heavy heroin and crack user at the time that after Pinsky had not heard from Forrest for a period, the doctor assumed he had overdosed. A few years later Pinsky attended a fund-raiser sponsored by the Musicians Assistance Program, a nonprofit group that aided industry members with substance abuse problems. “There was this guy at the microphone,” Pinsky recalls, “and I thought, ‘Wow, he looks so much like Bob Forrest, who’s dead.’ ”

The man at the mic had gone through the revolving doors of rehabs 24 times before he quit drugs in 1996. Later Forrest’s disgust with what he felt was obsessive media coverage of celebrity addicts’ luxury rehabs gave him the idea to offer TV audiences a more unvarnished reality. “Lindsay and Britney were making it look like a spa,” he says, agitation growing in his voice. “I wanted to show what recovery was really like.” Forrest brought his idea to Pinsky, who had been trying to find backing for a similar cable-TV project of his own. The two collaborated on a single pitch that they eventually shopped to VH1. Then Forrest and Pinsky saw their show evolve in the hands of producers into a program starring celebrities.

“Drew’s only foible,” says comedian Adam Carolla, “was that he didn’t know when or how to speak up for himself.” Carolla was once Pinsky’s Loveline cohost on radio and during its MTV run. “In his early days in radio and TV he wasn’t aware that people in television are imbeciles or that 90 percent of TV producers are horrifically bad at what they do.”

When critics complain about the people on Celebrity Rehab, however, it’s not just about the seeming hypocrisy of harnessing fame to achieve fame while preaching against its worship. It’s also the way that the celebrities are permitted to behave that has generated questions about whether Pinsky is following his Hippocratic oath to do no harm. Many recovery professionals take issue with the addicts being paid by the show’s producers to undergo three weeks of free recovery services. Additionally, the addicts receive free follow-up counseling from Pinsky; Forrest says that nearly all cast members leave the show having chosen a 12-step sponsor.

Down the street from the Pasadena Recovery Center, the 130-bed Impact Drug & Alcohol Treatment Center has built a reputation for being a place of austere discipline. Jim Stillwell, the CEO, has been associated with that institution for 37 years and knows Pinsky. “Drew Pinsky is a voice of reason in the midst of that chaos,” Stillwell says. “I’ve heard him talk a thousand times. He gets it. He understands how to get people interested in their sobriety.” Nevertheless Stillwell finds the practices on the show unsettling. “I would not in any shape or form use Pasadena Recovery Center as a model. Right off the top you’re letting the client know there’s something special and unique about them. That flies in the face of everything we go by and plays right into their egos.”


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Sitting in his barren new office in the CNN building near Sunset and Vine one afternoon, Pinsky tells me that Stillwell might have a point. The office looks out on a busy newsroom, whose elevated bank of TV monitors Pinsky keeps glancing at. “Are we amplifying their narcissist issues?” he asks. “Probably. Maybe these are patients you couldn’t get into treatment any other way.” He says that if anyone gets special treatment on season five, “I’m walking off the set.”

Stan Galperson, a director of the Tarzana Treatment Centers, a chain of recovery facilities, takes a stance similar to Stillwell’s. He knows Pinsky and gives him high marks but is alarmed by the on-air confrontations in which members typically gang up on one another. In an episode of Sober House involving Celebrity Rehab grads, Tom Sizemore leaned over the Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, yelling, “I’ll beat the shit out of you, punk bitch!”

“You have to maintain order,” Galperson says. “I would never permit that kind of behavior. I would never allow the shaming of other people. It’s a community. You have to establish safety and integrity. You don’t have that in that crazy environment.”

A regular feature on both shows, as fans know, are the pillow fights in which cast members face off with one another over perceived slights or out of mere spite, often resulting in cigarette packs or plates of food being hurled. “It creates the illusion that it’s kind of comical,” Stillwell says. “Out here they’d be warned once and then discharged if they do it again. That kind of acting out is tolerated because it makes for good TV. Some people forget this is life and death.” Others suggest that the actors are simply playing to the camera.

Executive producer Jeff Olde denies this. “The cameras keep them honest,” he says. “I sleep well knowing the good it does people who participate.” (Olde declined to discuss how much cast members receive for appearing on the rehab shows.) Likewise, he sloughs off a claim made to me by Forrest that the producers gin up action by sending its stars on periodic outings. Think David and Lisa, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted, or any other book or film set in a mental institution: The Trip to Town is a narrative trope that ends badly whenever the stories’ inmates confront the world outside their therapeutic cocoon. Forrest says that the slightest mishap gets blown out of proportion onscreen. “It’s not the kind of show you need to throw gasoline on,” says Olde. “Rehab’s not just a prison—it’s important for them to get out of there. It’s good for the soul.” 

*****

Las Encinas Hospital sits on peaceful wooded grounds in the eastern reaches of Pasadena, where it has been located for 104 years. Pinsky worked there for almost two decades. Last year he left following unrelated 2008 incidents involving three deaths (including one suicide and an overdose) and the rape of a 14-year-old girl by another patient. Although Pinsky was not directly involved in the care of the patients in question, his public identification with the hospital dragged his name and photograph into reporting of the scandal, which the Los Angeles Times pounced on in a series of articles.

“Putting his picture above the fold was yellow journalism,” Forrest says. “Drew was not the doctor of record.” Forrest himself was hired in 2003 by Las Encinas, where he became clinical director of chemical dependency services before leaving in 2009. “This stuff shocked and hurt him,” Forrest says. “He was so trusting and loved. Now he’s more guarded.” Pinsky was Keck’s commencement day speaker this year, but he hasn’t been as active at the school since departing the hospital; the scandal has also made him apprehensive about speaking to reporters as anything but an expert.

“I won’t talk to the Times because they twist everything I say,” he tells me, suddenly losing a bit of the Pinsky cool as his words come spilling out a little faster than usual. “Their implication was that I was financially benefiting from the relationship [with Las Encinas], that they were using my status to lure people in and kill them. That was volunteer work—I lost money working there. It’s where I honed my craft. It’s where I taught medical students. I loved doing it, and they made me leave.” Although he describes his exit as a mutual agreement, Pinsky adds, “I was motivated to leave because I was tired of being a target for whatever happened at that facility. I was really sickened by it.”


This feature was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Pinsky, who is not a psychiatrist, has also wilted somewhat under the constant criticism he receives for opining on the air about the mental health and well-being of troubled celebrities. Whereas other doctors refuse to diagnose patients without examining them first, Pinsky has come across as more than willing to forgo that formality. He began getting flak in 2008 when, during a Playboy interview, he stated that Tom Cruise’s involvement in the “cultish” Church of Scientology was “a function of a very deep emptiness and suggests serious neglect in childhood—maybe some abuse but mostly neglect.” Forrest remembers the firestorm: “I told him, ‘Dude, you need to shut the fuck up about Scientology—they’ll murder you!’ ” Cruise’s power lawyer, Bert Fields, launched a media war against Pinsky, whose comments he likened to the Nazi propaganda of Joseph Goebbels. The doctor was compelled to issue a public apology.

Pinsky is one of the most naturally image-savvy individuals sitting in front of a camera today, so his transformation from telegenic physician to media piñata is one of the more puzzling aspects of his story. “It is a throwback to Aztec culture,” he once told me, paraphrasing a line from his book The Mirror Effect. “We get together with a human-sacrifice impulse rooted in envy. Because of all the trauma and chaos in our culture, we go primitive.” Pinsky addressed the issue of long-distance diagnoses in an interview on HLN’s Web site, and he frequently employed his new disclaimer on Dr. Drew’s debut as he discussed Charlie Sheen: Although he hasn’t personally spoken to Sheen, he is about to offer his opinion on him based on decades of clinical practice dealing with addicts and delusional behavior.

During the show’s first week, Pinsky’s confidence seemed rattled. He talked over the people he was interviewing and appeared uncharacteristically nervous. His awkward attempt to place a hand on Sammy Hagar’s leg drew merciless teasing when Pinsky appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! After a month, though, Pinsky looked more self-assured. Porn-actress guests eventually were replaced by policy wonks whom Pinsky engaged in substantive discussions about teen bullying and the faith-based “reparative therapy” of gays.

Still, many of the topics seem reactive to the daily churn of celebrity news headlines, and sex remains the reliable common denominator of Dr. Drew’s story lists, with a conspicuous number of features related to child and adolescent sexuality. One debut-week segment announced that children were turning to porn films to get the sex education that their schools were failing to provide, without mentioning the alliance of Christian fundamentalists, the Catholic Church, and pro-life groups that fiercely lobbies against such instruction.

By then Pinsky had already finished taping season five of Celebrity Rehab, which had started production at the end of February, and he was a constant presence in the news cycle. He was commenting on Lindsay Lohan after she’d been accused of theft by a Venice jewelry store. He was diagnosing Charlie Sheen, whose meltdown was about to reach critical mass. (“To, like, have a prognosis about somebody you’ve never been in the same room with, based on his image in a media setting?” Sheen told Pinsky’s CNN colleague Piers Morgan. “He should be ashamed of himself.”) Pinsky had already served up comments on Jason Davis, the oil heir from season four of Celebrity Rehab who had been arrested for heroin possession. And he had also weighed in on Mike Starr, who’d been busted for having unprescribed painkillers. “I talked to Mike Starr two days before he got arrested,” Pinsky told me, “and I knew he was in trouble because somebody had put him on Suboxone. My peers did that to him. What frustrates me is people who look at our program and call it a failure when someone relapses. In real life that’s just part of the deal.”

Within a month Starr had died of an overdose; within three more, on May 18, Jeff Conaway, his body racked by a lifetime of drug use, lay in a medically induced coma following complications stemming from a bout of pneumonia. The troubled actor, an alumnus of Celebrity Rehab’s first two seasons, personified the term “train wreck” after arriving at the Pasadena Recovery Center in a wheelchair, incoherently drunk. “I’m deeply saddened to learn that Jeff is hospitalized and in a coma,” Pinsky told the camera at the start of Dr. Drew that evening. (A couple of days later Pinsky would visit Conaway and tweet that, despite early news reports, Conaway hadn’t overdosed on drugs.) “It’s not looking good, and my thoughts and prayers remain with him and his family,” he continued. Like a sensible host, he tried to segue back to the show’s scheduled content, about the infidelity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Pinsky found he couldn’t quite leave Conaway. “We’re going to be talking—oh, it’s very upsetting,” he said, that familiar look of concern darkening his face. “It’s very upsetting. And I’m tired of my patients dying of this disease, but here we go.” One week later Conaway would be dead.            

Contributing writer Steven Mikulan wrote about the trial stemming from Anna Nicole Smith’s death in the December 2010 issue. Read the story.

ALSO: Watch the ten most shocking moments of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew