It’s difficult to consider the show Obsessed without first thinking about its progenitor, A&E’s award-winning Intervention, an immensely moving and inescapably authentic documentary series that profiles people who are crumbling beneath the weight of their addictions, and the friends and family members who are struggling to help them. It’s an utterly compelling program, one that manages to be simultaneously despairing and hopeful. Using a similar documentary format, Obsessed focuses on people who are suffering from some form of anxiety disorder. The first half of each episode concentrates on how the disorder affects a given person, while the second half shows them undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy in order to treat it.
The material presented on the show, which can be intricately neurotic, requires a subtle and deft touch, but Obsessed approaches it with all the nuance of a hammer. In the introduction, the show markets itself as a bit of a thrill ride, luridly suggesting we’re about to embark on a chilling journey into madness. Spectral music bends and scratches in the background and strobe lighting flashes as we view the word “OBSESSESED,” marked heavily in black ink, as if written again and again by a tormented mind. There’s no mistaking the producers’ intent: They want us to think this is a freak-out show.
During the premiere episode, we met Scott, a muscular gay man who, amplifying a stereotype, was terrified of dirt and cleaned obsessively. On another episode, we were introduced to Trina, who had a fear of violently harming other people. She’d never actually done anything, mind you, but she thought about it, and this proved sufficiently paralytic that she was inhibited from living a normal life. Often, there’s an unfortunate comedic subtext lurking just beneath the surface of the disorders we’re presented. Russ, a hoarder, tells us of a happier time in his life when he belonged to the Gay Man’s Chorus of L.A. As he speaks, his eyes moistly gazing into the past, a photograph of him in a baby blue tuxedo, smiling a show-biz smile, appears on screen. It was hard not to laugh, and a viewer could be forgiven for thinking they might actually be watching an SNL sketch or Christopher Guest film.
After luring us in with the promise of cheap thrills, Obsessed abruptly shifts gears, asking us to become empathetic and sensitive to the baroque plights it trots out before us. As a cue for the audience to unleash these sentiments, tinkly music plinks away in the background, and we’re ostensibly supposed to become overwhelmed by compassion rather than perversely fascinated. Disingenuously, Obsessed plays both sides of the fence on this matter, presenting complicated scenarios with little or no nuance. In spite of the absurdity of what’s often portrayed, no humor is allowed to bleed into the proceedings, and everything is treated with a reverent, unquestioning respect.
While Intervention leaves the heavy lifting of recovery off camera, Obsessed makes it a cornerstone of the show. Set in L.A., where it’s as culturally normal to undergo therapy as it for people in Wisconsin to shovel their driveway in the winter, the series features five different therapists whom they cycle through the 11 episodes of the first season. One of them is Dr. Shana Doronn, who appears to be angling for a Dr. Phil-style television talk show. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, part of her treatment plan is to expose her patients to that which they fear—thus, over time, decreasing their level of anxiety. With Scott, who was scared of filth, she told him that she was going to use his bathroom to change her tampon. Upon hearing this, he looked like he was going to die. IT. WAS. THE. WORST. THING. EVER. No matter, she pressed forward, forcing him into the bathroom after she had done the deed, and making him hold the towel with which she had used to clean up to his face and asking him to imagine “the squidge” soaking into his pores. On another episode, in dealing with Trina, who feared violently harming others, she made Trina hold a knife to her throat. Regardless of how effective these techniques may be, they look absolutely ridiculous.
Of course, Obsessed makes the conscious choice to focus on the ridiculous. When Dr. Doronn, who goes by the TV-friendly “Dr. Shana” on her blog, had the knife held up to her throat, the scene was used repeatedly as a teaser at each commercial break, celebrating the sensational spectacle they were constructing. Over the course of three months of treatment, they could have presented any number of different scenarios that would have truthfully, and sympathetically, highlighted the progress the patient was making.
Obsessed tries to be all sorts of things at once, and ends up being an over-produced and manipulative mess. Usually, the show ends in sunlight and optimism. Therapy has proven effective and the person being treated is making fantastic strides and has started to lead a fulfilling and normal life. Adhering rigidly to an ultimately dehumanizing formula, Obsessed serves as a love letter to the therapeutic industry, and fobs off its cynical exploitation of both its subjects and audience as just another inspirational, feel-good story.