Not only is the alternative medicine / “wellness” industry popular with people seeking non-medical treatments for what ails them, but it’s also popular with docuseries creators, networks and streaming services. (Un)Well, a six-part docuseries, tries to balance stories about how these treatments are really making a difference in various clinical settings with people who are selling these treatments as unproven cures, and the big business that those people generate.
(UN)WELL: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: After a disclaimer that says the information in (Un)Well is for entertainment purposes only and that people interested in the wellness treatments discussed in the show should consult a physician, we see a closeup of a dropper being pulled out of a bottle of essential oils.
The Gist: (Un)Well is a docuseries that takes an unsparing look at various wellness trends, interviewing not only people who have profited from the wellness craze but experts who think that at the very least the various trends don’t help people much, and at worst might cause severe health issues.
The first episode of the docuseries takes a look at essential oils — other episodes will focus on tantric sex, breast milk, extreme fasting, ayahuasca (i.e. hallucinogens) and apitherapy (therapy using bee venom, honey, pollen and royal jelly). Essential oils have been used as natural therapies for centuries, and it seems that as we get into the third decade of the 21st century, they’re being incorporated into modern wellness routines more than they have in many years.
We hear from a number of people using the oils, usually derived from the flowers or seeds of plants. In one hospital, a trained nurse uses the essential oils to help patients with their anxiety, rubbing it on their arms and feet to help calm them down so they can recover more quickly. But we also hear from Dr. Eric Zielinski (Dr. Z), and his wife Sabrina (Mama Z). He’s a chiropractor who has made a fortune selling tutorials on essential oils online. He doesn’t sell them directly, but the professionally-made videos he and his wife make have gotten millions of views. He claims that essential oils cured him of various ailments, and that he feels called to extol their virtues by God him/herself.
In other segments, we hear from a woman who has become a top seller of doTERRA essential oils, a multi-level marketing company. We also hear about Donald Gary Young, the founder of Young Essentials, the other major MLM that sells essential oils; his annual meetings filled football stadiums. Of course, the other side of the story is that, like most MLMs, the majority of people who go into business with Young Essentials lose money and don’t sell anything. We also hear from a user of one of these companies’ oils who got such a severe rash from overconsumption that she had to be hospitalized.
Our Take: What struck us about (Un)Well, produced by Ken Druckerman, Banks Tarver, Anneka Jones, and Erica Sashin, is that it tries very hard to show legitimate uses and outcomes of the wellness treatments it profiles. Yes, it tries to strike a balance, as its equivocating title indicates; even the show’s title sequence shows the word Well longer than it shows (Un)Well. We get it; there are people who see the therapeutic uses in things like essential oils and don’t even attempt to claim they do anything but help. But it feels like the producers were more into the people who were making a buck off people’s gullibility and less about the people who are actually using these treatments in a reasonable and effective way.
If we wanted to see crackpot uses of alternative cures by people with too much time and money on their hands, we can flip over to a different Netflix series, The Goop Lab. What we wanted to see more of in the episode on essential oils were people like the nurse who was using them to help ease anxiety and other tensions. We wanted to see more examples like the family who was using the therapy to help their autistic teenage daughter Sarah sleep at night. What we didn’t care as much about were people trying to tout the oils as something that would shrink brain tumors, as the doTERRA salesperson claims happened to her when she was a kid.
It seemed to be too easy for the producers to go for the more sensational stories, like the Zielinskis. There are about ten different ways that you can scoff at what “Doctor” Z and his wife are doing, how they’re guided by God and their claims that the FDA is full of shit when the agency says that the oils can’t be taken internally. But the documentary presents their story with credulity, even if it’s unintentional. We understand why; it’s an example of how essential oils are big business. But if they wanted to achieve a balance between the good side and the bad side, more legitimate sources could have been found.
Sex and Skin: We see people getting oils rubbed on different spots on their bodies, but that’s about it.
Parting Shot: We see Sarah, a few months into her aromatherapy treatment, happy and on a more even emotional keel, all because the oil infusions help her sleep better.
Sleeper Star: Anyone who was using the essential oils as a help and not as some sort of immunity booster or cure was the sleeper star in our book.
Most Pilot-y Line: Some of the production seams showed, like when we cut to Sarah’s mother trying to get her out of the car for their aromatherapy consultation. We see her mother looking off camera, then starting to get her daughter out of the car, like she was waiting for the director to call “action.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you can get past (Un)Well’s interest in the more charlatan-centric aspects of each wellness movement, it should hold some good information if you’re seeking some alternate ways to feel more healthy and happy.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
Stream (Un)Well On Netflix