The daytime TV ecosystem is made up of several key organisms. There’s “Pleasant Background Noise” (The Talk, The Real, The View); “Stuff You Watch While Home Sick on the Couch” (The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal); the “Cult of Judge Judy” (Judge Judy, Judge Judy wannabes), and so on. And of course, there is the once-dominant “S—show” sector, which ruled through the ‘90s and beyond with such colorful mainstays as Jenny Jones (1991-2003); Jerry Springer, which launched in 1991 and was canceled quietly this year; and of course the lone survivor of the silly-shock genre, Maury (1991-?).
But how to categorize Dr. Phil McGraw, whose eponymous series is currently the No. 1 syndicated talk show? For a time, it seemed Dr. Phil might take up the “WTF” mantle from Jerry Springer; this is the same man who loosed that poor “Cash Me Ousside” girl on an unsuspecting world, after all. A random sampling of episodes from Dr. Phil’s new season (its 17th!), however, revealed none of the deranged joy present in Springer or even its sleazier stepchild, Maury. While those shows were a spectacle of let-your-freak-flag-fly absurdity where everyone, guests included, was in on the joke, Dr. Phil seems intent on harnessing all of the bleakness of human dysfunction with none of the fun.
Each episode of Dr. Phil follows a similar format: First, we meet the desperate subjects, like a “real-life Nurse Jackie” named Heather, who’s come to Dr. Phil to help her kick her drug addiction… and deal with her hard-drinking husband, John. We get the pre-recorded package with he-said, she-said testimonials (Heather: “When I am coming off the medication, I am a real bitch”) and accusations (John: “I don’t feel like I have an alcohol problem, I feel like I have an abusive wife problem”). Then comes the interview, for lack of a better term, in which Dr. Phil lets his guest air their grievances/yell over each other in the studio, as dueling chyrons help explain the source of the conflict for those viewers who may be watching with the sound off. (Feuding married couple Chris and Pepper, for example, were identified as “Says his wife chased him down the freeway after an argument” and “Claims her husband punched her in the face,” respectively.) At their calmest, these segments are like watching a tense holiday dinner on a brightly lit soundstage; at their most emphatic, the interactions are essentially that GIF of Steve Carrell in Anchorman yelling “LOUD NOISES,” come to life.
Through it all, Dr. Phil rotates through several demeanors. There’s Concerned Clinician: [consulting notes in an official looking binder] “Did you point a gun at him, and then actually point it at the floor and fire it?” There’s the Bemused Ringmaster, who can barely hide his smirk when asking a beleaguered husband, “What happened when you brought the lemon bars home?” Finally, we have Dr. Tough Love, whose harsh assessments are softened, just barely, by his folksy twang: “I’m not calling you an idiot, I’m saying that behavior is idiotic,” he told a despondent mother of a wild teen girl in an episode titled “Not So Sweet 16.”
That last version of Phil usually emerges when the good doctor is looking to wrap things up with his current subjects and move on to the next train wreck. Ostensibly, everyone who appears on this show comes to Dr. Phil for help, and by the time the guests leave they’ve been offered some vague form of assistance — Dr. Phil will say things like “I want the two of you to stop yelling and start talking, and I’m going to get you the help to do that,” or he’ll promise a “handpicked” professional to help them work through their issues. Sometimes the host will send a troubled teen to Turnabout Ranch in Utah — a place he tried with Ms. Cash Me Ousside, by the way — or offer a miserable married couple a trip to a relationship retreat in Tennessee called Onsite.
While most of the real therapy happens off screen, Dr. Phil does have one go-to treatment move he busts out on occasion: The Face-Off. First, the host moves his guests’ (oddly high) chairs close together, so they’re almost sitting knee-to-knee. “I want you two to look at each other,” he’ll say, sometimes instructing them to engage in a little uninterrupted eye contact. (That part always makes me think of Baby Mama, to be honest.) Recently, a despairing mom named Theresa sat facing her angry and impetuous teen daughter Tessa. Dr. Phil said, “I want you to tell your mother, ‘Mom, what I wish you would stop doing because it hurts me…’” An intense and emotional discussion followed, and I’ll admit I teared up a few times, especially when Tessa asked her mother — during the “What I want you to do because I need it” portion — to “love me.”
Later that day, I tried the technique on my 8-year-old (minus the uncomfortably close chairs). “What I wish you would stop doing because it hurts me is ignoring me when I speak to you,” I told him. “Be quiet,” he sighed, and walked away.
Dr. Phil grade: C+