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The Frustrating Rorschach Test of Netflix’s (Un)Well

Netflix’s tepid framing of its mini-series about the dangers of the wellness industry may end up encouraging viewers to give unproven and disproven health fads a try

Much like the title’s parentheses which tease a bleaker angle without committing to it, Netflix’s latest health docuseries, (Un)Well, behaves like the infamous Rorschach ink blot test. I imagine that the viewer will get out of it what they bring to it because the show itself is so respectful of the culture of the wellness industry. It observes but never judges, and this impartial approach causes it to commit the sin of false balance.

The docuseries explores six modern wellness trends and their darker side: essential oils, tantric sex, human breast milk consumption by adults, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee sting therapy. Most episodes follow the same structure. Contradictory pull quotes--“this intervention saved my life”, “this intervention is dangerous”--open the episode to sow confusion. We then witness numerous personal stories from people who believe in the practice. We follow them in their everyday lives and see how the intervention has allegedly changed them. A healthcare professional or scientist is briefly interviewed to warn the viewer to be careful. An egregious example of the intervention gone mad is presented. And throughout the episode, we are meant to identify with a hero, a person who becomes interested in the practice, experiences it, and finds hope or success.

To the show’s credit (and unlike recent Netflix offerings like The goop lab and Down to Earth with Zac Efron), the harm caused by the wellness industry is confronted. We meet a woman whose husband died during a water fast. We spy on a Romanian man who set up shop in Thailand as a tantric sex swami and who is accused of sexually assaulting multiple women for the purpose of enlightenment. Even ayahuasca, frequently touted as a mind-healing elixir, does not escape from a critical examination in the show’s best episode, as we learn of a Canadian man who murdered his ayahuasca shaman when his medication presumably interacted badly with the psychoactive brew.

But many of the show’s cautionary tales take place in exotic countries. The man who died during his water fast was staying at a retreat in Costa Rica, whose director is against the idea of medical supervision. This is contrasted with a centre in California where its founder, a chiropractor, insists that his clients, who undergo equally dangerous water-only fasts from five to 40 days, are medically supervised... except that the people we see on screen are chiropractors and naturopaths, not medical doctors. Yet their American centre is portrayed as the correct way of doing this, unlike that controversial facility in Latin America. Other episodes flip this scenario by showing how Westerners have corrupted and exploited foreign spiritual practices for financial gain.

And then there is the outpouring of fallacies. The believers, both newcomers and experts, are allowed to make bad arguments to the camera with no critical commentary. We hear that aromatic oils have been around for over 5,000 years (but bloodletting was used for centuries, not because it works but because our understanding of the human body was primitive); we hear the complaint that doctors give you a pill for everything (but wellness gurus get away with prescribing dozens of oils and supplements without the bat of an eyelash); and we hear in support of fasting that the default state of humans is not eating (which, taken to its logical end, would lead us to breatharianism). I dream of a day where documentaries plaster the screen with fact-checking warnings against fallacious arguments made by their interview subjects.

(Un)Well’s sociological bent even leads it to validate a false diagnosis like chronic Lyme disease, using a computer-generated animation of the human body it reserves for scientific explanations to show the viewer which parts of the body this alleged condition targets. The problem is that, while the reported symptoms may be real, their attribution to a persistent, antibiotic-resistant and undetectable Lyme bacterium is not scientifically founded and constitutes a fake diagnosis. It’s a shame because the episode in which chronic Lyme disease is presented as real also features Dr. Steven Novella, the host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, who has written multiple times about the reality of acute Lyme disease, its complications, and the false diagnosis that is chronic Lyme. But like so many experts featured on the show, he is essentially tokenized. These voices of reason are used as occasional road signs to remind us not to go too far down the wellness road, while casual anecdotes are allowed to breathe and touch our hearts.

For a show that brands itself as consumer protection against the siren song of Big Wellness, its message about medicine is puzzling. Many of the series’ heroes refuse medical treatment for serious conditions and their decision to instead choose unproven therapies is portrayed as correct. There’s the essential oil saleswoman who claims her inoperable brain tumour vanished thanks to frankincense, cloves, oregano and tea tree oil. Another man refuses hernia surgery and receives bee stings instead, claiming success. He then ropes in his entire family to the bee venom clinic to treat all of their health problems. The show travels to Gaza and Mongolia to bring us some of these apparently favourable outcomes. But what it does not do clearly enough is to explore the reason why the very anecdotes on which it is built are unreliable. Dr. Novella begins to explain this but is cut off by the editor. Testimonials, as endearing as they are on camera, simplify an often complex story. We see “disease, intervention, no disease.” What we don’t see are the other treatments used in parallel, the natural course of the disease, the half-forgotten evidence that doesn’t fit the theory, the regression of symptom severity, and any embellishment or lie the storyteller chooses to contribute to their tale.

(Un)Well warns against extremes in the search for health but allows so many pseudoscientific claims to stand unchecked, it practically endorses many of the practices it aims to denounce. Human breast milk available for sale on the Internet often contains disease-causing bacteria as an expert warns, but unchecked stories crowd her out. We witness a bodybuilder who gets cut on what he calls “boob juice”; future Mongolian wrestlers who seemingly thrive on their mother’s milk until the age of eight; and a man who allegedly cured his prostate cancer by becoming a loyal customer of a human milk bank.

The danger signals are marginal. The human appeal is in focus. Viewers will see what they want to see, and Netflix will continue to do (un)well.

Take-home message:
- The Netflix docuseries (Un)Well takes a look at six wellness trends and their potential dangers: essential oils, tantric sex, human breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee sting therapy.
- The show focuses much of its attention on people who claim to benefit from these trends and who often make bad arguments in support of unproven and disproven interventions.
- Experts point out the dangers of these wellness trends but, with some exceptions, they take a secondary role in the narrative of the show.


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