Todd Herzog on Dr. Phil: exploitative and necessary

In the preview of Todd Herzog’s appearance on Dr. Phil, the footage of the Survivor China winner was horrifying and also sensationally presented. Was his appearance on the show exploitative or critically necessary?

After the broadcast yesterday, the answer is clear: It was both.

The basic details of his appearance were covered in an audience member’s messages to me, including how his problem with alcohol started at Survivor-related events following his win. Todd said, “I had never had a drink until I was 22,” which is when he won the show.

During the episode, I was particularly interested to see Todd being confronted by his family, interventionists, and the show’s cameras at his Utah condo, when he clearly had no idea what was going on. He finally said, “What is this? Can someone please tell me?” When he found out it was for Dr. Phil, he asked, “Dr. Phil? Why the fuck would he want to help me?”

A good question, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

However, it was also extremely clear that Todd’s family needed help to intervene in his life, and they were not there to seek publicity for themselves or their son. They were devastated and helpless, since Todd has refused to return to rehab, and instead was trying to detox by himself which left him at risk of death.

He was in bad shape: Todd’s family finds him “soaked in urine,” we were told; his stepfather said Todd’s apartment looks like “an episode of Hoarders”; Todd said “I crap black,” referring to possibly bloody feces. He was unable to walk into the studio unassisted, though he did still joke about the tall chairs: “Why do you guys have nine-foot chairs?” (Unbelievably, some people still insist he was faking.)

Slurring his words, Todd admitted that being on Dr. Phil was critical: “I’m so stubborn that I wouldn’t be willing to come out here if it wasn’t for you to help me and show me what to do and help me with what I have to do, and here I am.”

Ultimately, Todd left for a rehab facility in Austin, apparently for at least 90 days. That outcome makes everything that preceded it worthwhile, I think.

Yet Dr. Phil frequently seemed more interested in hitting the necessary beats and bits than actually listening to Todd or even his family. I think it would have been a far better hour of television if it had been more of a conversation, with actual listening and follow-up questions. Sure, Todd was incredibly drunk, and perhaps in an intervention, listening to an addict’s answers to your questions really doesn’t matter.

From start to finish, Dr. Phil’s priority seemed to be using Todd to create an hour of television–not to educate, not to help Todd, though both those things happened.

Daytime talk shows are meticulously produced down to the minute, and that was extremely evident the entire episode, when Dr. Phil would interrupt or move to the next sensational thing instead of actually responding to an answer or diving deeper into the reasons for Todd’s addiction. At one point, Dr. Phil had people bring out vodka bottles to illustrate Todd’s insane consumption (24 gallons of vodka a month!), and at another, stood dramatically next to empty chairs where the intervention specialists were going to sit, saying there was an unexpected crisis with Todd and they were helping him, as if the show couldn’t have just paused taping to wait for them.

Survivor winner Sandra Diaz was virtually bowled over, and it almost seemed like she wasn’t even going to get to speak after hugging Todd and being directed back to her seat by Dr. Phil. But like most everyone else, she got a brief moment to say something and that was it for her.

The entire episode felt like a series of boxes being checked off, from the sensational to the promotional, such as the images of the rehab center’s facilities that were shown like they were a prize during the Showcase Showdown on the Price is Right.

Only at the very end did reality intervene as Todd upstaged Dr. Phil, waving at the intervention specialists sitting next to him and saying “these two, they’re wonderful…and Sandra…,” and Dr. Phil was nearly laughing as he put his hand on Todd to try to quiet him down so he could wrap up the show.

Yes, Dr. Phil’s sensationalism did serve a purpose, such as when he dramatically asked Todd’s mom how she’d feel throwing handfuls of dirt on Todd’s coffin. It was both awful and necessary to illustrate just how dire the situation was. Other moments, such as having Todd basically be carried into the studio (instead of just doing that off-camera) felt sensational but were excellent illustrations of the seriousness of alcoholism, and hopefully will help educate viewers who either have a problem themselves or know someone who does.

Dr. Phil said that, after at least 90 days in treatment, he’ll have Todd back to check in on his progress, and I hope that we see the old Todd again then. There were moments of his humor, such as when he realized he’d be gone for Christmas and his birthday, never mind the Survivor Blood vs. Water finale red carpet event: “Oh shoot, dog. Seriously? 90 days? … Shoot dog, is all I have to say.”

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.