When I told my cousin I’d be listing Dr. Phillip McGraw’s talk show as one of my Guilty Pleasures, she let loose a good-natured chuckle and admitted she wouldn’t want her peers to know if she watched it. I don’t particularly blame her—people our age and programs like this?—nor am I vastly ashamed to admit I frequently tune in. Is that lame? Maybe. Is the show effective? Eh, that’s subjective, and while I certainly hope people use the show and its resources to get on the road to recovery, all I know is that sometimes I need to settle in with something that challenges my thought process as both a person and an artist. Sometimes, you need to talk. Sometimes, you need to listen. Sometimes, you need to think, and sometimes you just need white noise. For me, Dr. Phil often caters to these “needs” nicely. How?
1. It Raises Awareness. Whether I can relate to a topic or not, I enjoy feeding my brain a sound bite or two of an issue or disorder I’ve never truly considered or heard of before. As artists, we’re naturally hungry for information, always taking it in and processing it, picking up on actions and reactions as well as the circumstances from which the most dramatic, honest and human moments are derived. My notes and works are inspired by both the horror and hope of humanity along with the complexities that lie in between, and these facets have been portrayed in many if not all of the cases seen on Dr. Phil. I watch, I listen and more often than not, learn about what I need to learn more about (as a writer, a researcher, a friend, a family member and the like). Watching an episode of this program is similar to attending lecture: you pick up a few things, wonder about a few more and when class is dismissed, you go off and study. I always come out of the hour with the urge to sharpen my research skills and delve deeper into the psychology behind an act or aberration so I can construct fitting motivations and a relatively complex psyche for my characters—protagonists, antagonists, ancillary characters, all of ’em.
The best photographs and murals and stories and performances are those that pay attention and command attention. There needs to be something there, everywhere you look; the art should make you feel something, even if the feeling is foreign to you or uncomfortable. There should be some kind of reason behind every choice an artist makes, even if that reason appears to be a lack of reasoning (hey, plenty of things in the entertainment industry don’t make sense to me, but if I can sense they’re executed with even a modicum of passion or commitment, I can be compelled to give them a second glance and usually learn something new almost every time). So while I’m often warned of financial schemes and scams, potentially dangerous liaisons and the plight of the hungry (need to get back on FreeRice.com post-haste!) by watching Dr. Phil, I also glean some of the reasons why people make or might make certain choices, which is an understanding that can be applied not just to entertainment but to many components in life, in my opinion.
2. It’s Humbling. Many a time, Dr. Phil has made me reexamine my own psychology, and I’ve determined this show to be a worthy test of tolerance/acceptance, at least for me. Now that I’m in a place where I am woman enough to take responsibility for what I do and say and to find true value in constructive criticism and intense self-reflection, I try my hardest not to judge others. I don’t know the host or the guests or the audience members; I just sit back and do my best to assess. I try to see people and problems from all different angles instead:
For example, I just watched an episode in which a sex addict came forward begging for treatment because of his inability to control the way he views females, including his young daughter. As a viewer, for a bit, it was a challenge for me to divorce the sickness from the man and honestly and truly commend this person for seeking help as opposed to leaning back on my couch, scrunching up my face and murmuring “Uggghhh” like I used to do. Come on. We all know or have experienced individuals with cognitive or behavioral conditions and we all know that that kind of reaction—the “Uggghhh”?—doesn’t help the stigmas surrounding these irregularities at all. I don’t wish to feed into hateful or fearful reactions; I’ve seen them and displayed them enough. I wish for people to get the help they crave, and I hope they get it through the show, or at least get access to people or programs who can help them.
Anyway, fostering the ability to adopt a more objective standpoint also comes in handy when I’m creating characters. I acted in a few plays in junior college (ah, the weird, warm memories—am I right, fellow thespians?) and one of my roles was that of a vindictive, middle-aged lush, and even though I didn’t exactly like this character, I still had to temper my performance with enough vulnerability to give the audience something to associate and connect her to other than mere meanness. Rarely are human beings so simple. So if I’m too busy judging my antagonist or even my protagonist, I won’t be focusing my energy into making him or her more than just an archetype.
Dr. Phil also humbles me when it comes to my personal and professional pride. Admittedly, on occasion, I allow my own experiences to convince myself I know more about psychology than I actually do. If a familiar topic arises, sometimes I’ll catch myself thinking that I don’t need to review it because “I have family and friends in the psych and social fields”; “I took this class and this class”; “I’ve seen this, I’ve read that”; “I’ve been in therapy sessions and I know this, this and this,” blah blah blah. Then, when I leave the TV on anyway, the episode always seems to reply, “Yeah, but look all the experiences you don’t have or understand…look at all the things you think you know, but you don’t know.” Touché, nonexistent TV-show voice. Touché.
Well, at this point, during debates, I mostly settle for urging others to follow up on their own research or mine or carefully prefacing my theories as “opinions” or “speculation,” but I’d forgotten it can be as much fun to learn as it is to teach and to practice what you preach. And seeing—or often feeling—the utter tragedy that seeps through the television screen not only makes you appreciate your own functional relationships or self-esteem, but challenges you to put your perceptions to better use. There’s light there and there’s life there, but I see the sorrow and I see the pain too, and I want to write a few things with the express purpose of uplifting my readers. Overall, I want to create a positive impact with my art because maybe one day, in some way, what we do will touch someone in a manner he or she never expected, and we all just might be amazed by the echo we’ve made, and it would all stem from the desire and drive to develop the strength to do better—to be better—which is most likely all anyone on the show—or watching the show—can really hope for.
Dr. Phil pries my mind open just like a clam, and on a good, lucky day, I can snatch a pearl or two from inside and put it on the page. And for that, if nothing else (and there usually is something else), I am grateful.
Which talk show inspires you? Feel free to share a reply if you’d like.
P.S. Ever see Dr. Phil with Shaq in the opening scene of Scary Movie 4?