Television

(Un)Well Sets Out to Debunk Shady Wellness Claims, but It Can’t Make Up Its Mind

Netflix’s series finds it’s hard to investigate the wellness industry’s questionable claims without painting the desperate people who turn to them as dupes.

A woman in white places her hand on a reclining woman's chest, as a bearded man looks on.
(Un)Well’s tantric sex episode. Netflix

The tensions at work in Netflix’s latest docuseries, (Un)Well, are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the state of the wellness industry. Currently valued at $4.5 trillion, the business of curing what ails you for the low price of six easy installments of $49.95 encompasses trends ranging from CBD and celery juice to vampire facials and the infamous jade vaginal egg. Underneath the dubious promises offered with a lot of these products is a murky blend of junk science, a deep skepticism of Western medicine, and a bit of good old-fashioned cultural appropriation. Spotlighting six different wellness trends, (Un)Well attempts to divine the distinct ingredients in this witches’ brew. But the show’s otherwise laudable sensitivity toward its subjects, skeptics, and believers alike undermines its promise to determine whether or not the wellness industry’s believers are, to quote the opening credits, “falling victim to false promises.” In largely refusing to take a side by declining to paint even its most credulous subjects as stooges, (Un)Well demonstrates just how difficult the task of responsibly debunking wellness trends can be.

Over the course of six episodes, (Un)Well attempts to serve as a roadmap to the ever-expanding sprawl of wellness. Each 50-ish-minute episode features gently dubious experts and breathless acolytes expounding on, in order, essential oils, tantric sex, breast milk as a means of bulking up, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee sting therapy. Despite the presence of some fundamentally juicy material, each episode lags, and there’s a persistent feeling that they all could have been cut by at least 10 minutes without any important information getting lost. The abundance of footage seems to stem from the producers’ unwillingness to paint any of these trends as outright dangerous; skeptics on both sides are likely to come away with their beliefs challenged.

For a show that’s supposed to answer the question of whether these are miracle cures or snake oil, there’s a curious commitment on the producers’ part to evenhandedness. The essential oils episode spends a fair amount of its runtime on the multilevel marketing scheme Young Living, interviewing writer Rachel Monroe on her 2017 New Yorker article. But juxtaposed with Monroe’s explanation of the “essential oils lifestyle” that Young Living sells is largely unchallenged testimony from “wellness expert” and coronavirus truther Eric Zielinski (or, as he refers to himself, Dr. Z). The producers couldn’t have known that he would come to write that he was “legitimately concerned about what will happen to our collective immune system because of this hypersanitation, social distancing and mask wearing nonsense” at the time of filming. And they do give him just enough rope to hang himself by letting him say patently ridiculous things, like that families on food stamps could afford his essential oils training if they just stopped drinking Starbucks for a few weeks. Still, his almost evangelical belief, combined with the softly hopeful story of Julie Marshall, who uses essential oils as a last-ditch effort to treat her autistic daughter’s insomnia, with apparent success, largely leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about their efficacy.

That same noncommittal commitment underlies the episodes on intermittent fasting and tantric sex, even though the potential for negative consequences are much more dire. The worst that happens in the essential oils episode is someone developing an intense allergic reaction, which, while deeply painful, wasn’t ultimately life-threatening. The threat of death and sexual abuse lurk behind the practices of fasting and tantric sex, respectively. (Un)Well doesn’t gloss over those dangers, and both episodes feature interviews with the victims of these practices, as well as experts describing the ways that Western capitalism bastardized the concept of tantric sex and divorced it from its original cultural context. Overall, the show does a decent job of defining the line between Western and traditional use of new-to-us wellness trends like ayahuasca, whose episode features a fairly in-depth account of how wellness tourism irrevocably changed Indigenous communities in Peru.

Still, while (Un)Well doesn’t necessarily shy away from showing the dark side of these treatments, the narrative frame that undergirds each episode only serves to soften the blow. By the third episode, it’s easy to spot the cast of characters that will appear and in what order. First: the individual as case study, typically someone who has been ill-served or ignored by Western medicine. (It’s curious that nearly all of these characters in the show are white, though traditionally Black people are the least likely to have their concerns addressed by doctors.) Next up is the devoted follower whose livelihood also happens to be bound up in selling this treatment to other people. Then, the counterprogramming comes in, with scientists and cautionary tales giving their takes. But invariably the episode ends on the individual as case study, affirming their belief in the hope of the treatment. The last thing the viewer will remember in the fasting episode isn’t the woman whose husband died as a result of a monthlong water fast. It’s the woman who just completed a monthlong water fast who feels better than ever, whose blood sugar and blood pressure are back in control after years of struggling with diabetes and hypertension.

Executive producer Erica Sachin told the Guardian that they “made a very conscious decision not [to] have a host or a narrator, so that we could let the characters speak for themselves.” When you look at the potential negative consequences of some of these treatments, that can’t help but feel irresponsible. Still, that ethos demonstrates a familiar conundrum when it comes to debunking wellness trends. For many, disapproval from authorities who have already dismissed their concerns will only strengthen their belief. Many people turn to wellness trends after years of being ignored by medical professionals vested in the idea that Western medicine is the beginning and end of health. That ignorance is oftentimes colored by disdain toward treatments that have been passed down for centuries by people of color. But the same arrogance that produces the dismissal of these treatments is also evident in the hyperconsumption and commodification of them by white people in the West.

Balancing all of these medical and cultural issues is a nearly impossible task, so it’s not entirely surprising that (Un)Well bypasses the work of analysis and falls back on bothsidesism. No documentary-maker or journalist wants to compound the trauma done to people who’ve been told that their chronic illness is incurable or all in their head by insisting that they’re being taken for a fool. But there’s no way to deny that the wellness industry is incentivized to take advantage of that desperation—just as there’s no way to deny that historically, the deep distrust with which Western medicine has viewed homeopathy has less to do with its lack of efficacy than the color of the people who practice it. Expecting a six-episode docuseries to detangle all of that isn’t entirely unlike expecting essential oils to cure cancer.