With VH1's new series Breaking Bonaduce (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET with multiple re-airings throughout the week), reality televison approaches the nadir foretold by the 1976 film Network: It attempts to garner an audience with the dangled promise of an on-air suicide. As has been widely publicized, during the filming of the show, which focuses on Danny Bonaduce's disintegrating marriage with his wife Gretchen, the former child star slit his wrists (off-camera) and ended up in a psychiatric ward. As of last week's installment, Bonaduce has checked into rehab at the insistence of Gretchen and the show's producers—a condition he agreed to only if production on the show could continue behind the walls of the treatment center.
There are two schools of thought on Breaking Bonaduce: Some critics hold that the show unforgivably cheapens the real-life traumas of addiction and domestic violence (though Bonaduce never, to our knowledge, hits his wife, he torments and bullies her incessantly). Other viewers, including many in the show's growing cult of fans, claim that the show has gone beyond exploitation to become a raw and moving documentary of one family's collapse. I started out in the former category, and now, six episodes in, have migrated uneasily over to the latter. If there's a more dramatically compelling show than Breaking Bonaduce currently on television, I don't want to know about it. No, seriously, I don't. Watching this one—much less liking it as much as I do—feels morally compromising enough.
In the show's opening credits, Bonaduce addresses the camera, saying, "I'm a car crash, man, and you have every right to slow down and watch the car crash." But do we? Danny Bonaduce has managed to spin out his fame through his adult years for a reason beyond his headline-grabbing bad behavior: He's a whirling dervish of energy, charisma, and hyperarticulate self-regard, a C-list Robert Downey Jr. The persona he projects is contantly shifting: by turns maudlin, belligerent, tender and sardonic.
There was something disturbingly grown-up about the wry, gnomelike, wisecracking pre-adolescent he played on The Partridge Family (1970-1974). But now that he is an adult, the 45-year-old Danny seems like a child—albeit one afflicted with premature aging syndrome, to judge by his haggard, sad-eyed (yet still freckled) face. In addition to being a recovering alcoholic and former crack addict who once lived in his car behind Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, he admits to being addicted to sex, exercise, and steroids (in Episode 2, we see him shoot up some 'roids before heading to the gym to pump iron). His impulse control is near nil, and his judgment is terrible; in last week's episode, he freely admitted he was too drunk to drive before getting behind the wheel anyway, telling his producers, "You don't have a show if I don't crash." (In the end, the cameras were turned off while the producers wrested the keys away.)
Yet Bonaduce never comes across as the villain of the show (like one of the orchestrated bad guys on Survivor) or the object of ridicule (like the title buffoon of Being Bobby Brown). In the couple's filmed therapy sessions with Dr. Garry Corgiat, he is laceratingly aware of his shortcomings as a husband and father. The Bonaduces married the same night they met, after a seven-hour blind date; according to Danny, Gretchen refused to have sex before marriage, so he arranged for a quickie ceremony—a stunt he credits with bringing them together, since "nobody would get to know the real me and still marry me." Bonaduce's self-loathing is epic in proportion: "I'm guessing that you guess by now that I'm not my biggest fan," he tells Dr. Corgiat in one early session, later referring to himself as "soulless." Yet he also seems perversely proud of his outsize personality: "I don't want my anger managed," he boasts to Corgiat and Gretchen. "I like my anger. You guys walk around and be all gray. I'm colorful."
In one masterpiece of convoluted logic, Bonaduce even argues that his children, 10-year-old Isabella and 4-year-old Dante, will benefit from being kept in the dark about their father's problems: "I teach them all the things I don't know," he explains to the shrink. "They will be better people than I for not knowing me." In a wrenching one-on-one session between Gretchen and the doctor, she tearfully recounts how their daughter Isabella responds to their marital meltdown by becoming a mini-enabler: "I can fix this, Mommy. Tell him you'll never leave. We can fix this together."
Is Danny a struggling, tortured soul, or an entitled son of a bitch? Is Gretchen a loyal, patient spouse, or a wimped-out martyr endangering her children's future? Is Dr. Corgiat a shyster for allowing their sessions to be filmed? (He comes off as fatuous and L.A.-slick at times, but he also gives the couple some good advice and, to his credit, does ban cameras from the session in which he finally confronts Danny with the rehab ultimatum.) Are the show's producers sleazy ambulance-chasers or earnest, groundbreaking documentarians? And—perhaps the most troubling question of all for the audience—are those of us who faithfully TiVo Breaking Bonaduce each week legitimate fans of one of the best reality shows on TV, or ghoulish rubberneckers?