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'Breaking Bonaduce': A Child Star's Rise and Fall

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Even with the new stunts they pull, reality TV shows can seem interchangeable. But the series "Breaking Bonaduce," which airs on VH1, has taken the genre to a different and uncomfortable place. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

The first thing you should know about Danny and Gretchen Bonaduce really says everything about them. They met and married on the same day. Fifteen years later the relationship is at the breaking point, mainly because Danny is--well, `troubled' might be an understatement. This guy has so many demons, they could probably unionize. And don't just take it from me. Listen to how Danny describes himself when he checks into rehab.

(Soundbite of "Breaking Bonaduce")

Unidentified Woman #1: Tell me about your--anything as far as panic attacks...

Mr. DANNY BONADUCE: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...or severe anxiety...

Mr. BONADUCE: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...anything to do with sex addiction or love addiction, stuff going on that's...

Mr. BONADUCE: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible)

Mr. BONADUCE: Yes to all of the above. Oh, are you aware that I'm bipolar? I take Lexapro and Lamictal. I am hormone deficient. In my youth, a pharmacy, you know, looked very much like a buffet to me, but for the last 10 years it's been alcohol.

Unidentified Woman #1: Do you consider yourself, like, a binge drinker, a maintenance drinker?

Mr. BONADUCE: I'm a raging alcoholic. There's just no two ways about it.

WALLENSTEIN: Because Bonaduce is a former child star from "The Partridge Family" and now works as a radio disk jockey, you might assume the guy knows how to get attention from the cameras. But understand Bonaduce doesn't just talk the talk. Since the series started last month, we have seen everything from binge drinking to steroid use. But VH1 really threw us for a loop a few episodes ago when he attempted suicide off camera after Gretchen threatened to divorce him.

Reality TV has never seemed this real before, nor has it delivered such complicated characters. For all his deranged behavior, Danny is actually a strangely sympathetic figure. His wife is an enigma. You watch because you don't quite understand why she has stayed in this marriage so long. And did I mention they have two kids? But perhaps the most fascinating character is their couples therapist, Dr. Gary, who lets the cameras observe their sessions. His insight and compassion seem boundless, and yet you have to wonder at the ethicality of that decision.

Bonaduce's meltdown also inspires an interesting creative choice on the part of VH1. On reality TV, the cameras usually tend to be silent witnesses. VH1 wisely breaks from this artifice. The producers of "Breaking Bonaduce" often wander on camera and become part of the action, in one case trying to stop him from drunk driving. "Breaking Bonaduce" also does away with the genre's unwritten rule that its subjects can't address the presence of the cameras in the room. It's a striking choice as we see in a conversation between Gretchen and her friends.

(Soundbite of "Breaking Bonaduce")

Unidentified Woman #2: ...he's going to see this, and then he's going to say, `Your friends weren't supporting you. Don't be friends with them anymore.'

Mrs. GRETCHEN BONADUCE: No.

Unidentified Woman #2: You know what I mean?

Mrs. BONADUCE: No. I won't even watch this, to be honest, I don't think.

Unidentified Woman #3: ...(Unintelligible) us talk about it?

Mrs. BONADUCE: I don't think either of us are going to watch this because I think it'll be too painful to relive, you know, if we're still together at that point.

WALLENSTEIN: All this reality rule-breaking may actually serve two purposes. We get the full sense of just what a maniac this guy is, lest you think he's just putting on a show. But I also can't help thinking it's VH1's way of trying to meet its ethical responsibilities. Reality fans may find this all jarring, but I welcome the changes. "Breaking Bonaduce" is redefining the rules of a genre that could really use a shakeup.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein writes for the Hollywood Reporter, and he is a TV critic for DAY TO DAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.