TelevisionMade possible by

Set Visit: The Strange World of Dr Phil

A chance encounter in LA lead David Shamy to the lair of Dr Phil, America’s premier unlicensed clinical psychologist. //

shamy

You find two types of people on Venice Beach: the watchers and the watched. The watched are pirouetting on roller-skates, barely concealing their intimate parts. Or: they’re oiled up and pumping iron, barely concealing their intimate parts. The watchers, tourists like me, amble between stalls of New Age artwork and tattoo parlours.

You’ll notice an epidemic of minor afflictions here, too, but luckily doctors are on hand. They advertise in loud font. Kush doctor! Medicinal Marijuana! Walk-ins welcome! This is where my first step towards the doctor begins. Not a drug doctor. A TV doctor.

“Free stuff!” a man shouts, standing by a cart with a sun umbrella over it. He looks around 45 years old, with the grooming habits of a 20-year-old beach bum. I’m intrigued by the promise of free stuff. “It’s for the Dr Phil show,” he says, shoving a ticket in my hand.

A week earlier, my girlfriend and I had sat in a hotel in Vancouver watching Dr Phil on TV. We joked about going, neither of us sure if we were being ironic. This seemed like fate. He leans closer. “You’re young and white. You’ll be on TV. Front. Row. Guaranteed.” Naturally, I’m outraged by the use of casual racism as a selling point. “Plus, you get a shitload of free stuff – laptops, iphones, whatever”. Okay, I’m in.

Very early the next morning, we arrive in a rental car at Paramount Studios. There is no glamour here. It looks like a warehouse. A large group of very large people wait outside. We join them.

Our tickets warn: ‘Upscale Attire Required – no hats, shorts or jeans’. We grudgingly abide, but amongst those here I feel positively European in my black slim-fit chinos. Every man waiting outside has made the following sartorial decision: loose khaki pants and hair hardened into gel-slicked spikes. Manicured facial hair is also popular.

A little background on Dr Phil McGraw: He’s paid to fix people while making those watching at home feel superior, guilty or a mixture of both. He is also a huge success: multiple bestselling books, a wife, and handsome children. He speaks with a deep drawl so that everything he says sounds common sense and down-to-earth. When I was studying at University, his show was a regular tool for procrastination.

A man arrives and tells us to move on through. We leave our belongings at security, sign an agreement and are ushered through a hallway of pristine McGraw family portraits. Then we are asked to wait again. We’re on trial. Another man with a walkie-talkie scans the crowd, choosing who enters first (the telegenic) and who must be seated last, hidden from the camera’s view. We stand at the back so as not to look desperate. We are desperate.

Thankfully he picks us, the young and the white. We’re ushered to another room in which we wait again. Then, finally, after everyone has been vetted, we’re taken to our seats up front. A quick visual scan confirms segregation between those in the front seats and those in the back, but this might be confirmation bias. I decide to hold back from making a scene.

A man pumps up the crowd:

“Are you guys ready for Dr Phil?”

“Whoa!!!”

“I said: Are. You. Ready!!!??!!”

“Woooah!!!!!!!”

“Let’s dance!”

At this point there is considerable dancing and whooping. The crowd has an impressive willingness to follow orders. First we’re lining up patiently and then we’re dancing hysterically.

Finally and abruptly, the lights go down. A dolly swoops over our heads and Dr Phil enters to rapture. He’s tall and bearish. When he talks, the crowd falls completely silent and his words enter into the vacuum of the studio. It’s so quiet you don’t want to move.

A camera points itself directly at my face, which is like having a human being stare at you from an inch away. I focus on making a listening face without looking like I’m obviously making a listening face. I’m aware of an intense internal pressure to play the part. Is this why Hollywood stars like Botox, to paralyze awkwardness?

On the show a nice young couple is having problems with their young, out-of-control daughter. She’s a “brat”. Dr Phil sighs to the parents; you’re too soft, you must be tougher, you must have a plan. All American parents must do the same, because it is a value the country has lost. We clap.

Then he films an entire new episode about how to interpret dreams.

Two seats below us, Robyn, Dr Phil’s wife, sits dutifully, as she does every time he records an episode. Her hair is enormous, her body tiny, and her face frozen in a state of good cheer. It must be a strange life.

After the show, we leave the lot, and a black SUV pulls out from the security gates. Robyn waves to us with her permanent smile still fixed in place. She drives off into the depths of L.A.

The only free thing we got was a book: How To De-brat Your Kid. We have no children.

 

Watch Dr Phil weekdays at 1pm on TV3

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.