The wellness industry has been caught in a cycle of boom and reckoning in recent years, as popular opinion has alternated between embracing and calling out the privileged, exclusionary vision of various “health” champions. True to form, Netflix has participated in both waves of the trend, first with self-improvement series like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and the widely-criticized The Goop Lab, and later with debunking docuseries like (Un)Well and Vox’s Explained franchise.
This week sees Netflix jumping back into the fray with Headspace Guide to Sleep, the second series in its partnership with the popular mindfullness app. Narrated by Headspace's Director of Meditation Eve Lewis Prieto, the new seven-episode series provides advice on getting a proper night’s rest and explores different aspects of sleep, including insomnia, stress, and the effect of our phones.
Headspace Guide to Sleep and its predecessor Headspace Guide to Meditation, are two of Netflix's many “Follow Along”-style series. This is just one subgenre in the streamer’s ever-expanding wellness library, where subscribers can also find docuseries about purging material possessions (the “We are Living in a Material World” category), avant garde “health” trends, and the benefits of one diet over another. To be sure, not all of these titles are worth recommending — some verge on outright misinformation — but together they represent a cross section of Big Wellness’ influence on entertainment and streaming. Here's an overview:
Netflix attempts to harness the popularity of WebMD with its various “Ask an Expert”-type series, include Ask a Doctor, Vox’s The Mind, Explained series, and specials headlined by bestselling author Brené Brown and life coach Tony Robbins. Each approaches wellness from a different angle, such as Ask a Doctor’s deep-dive into specific medical issues or Brené Brown’s emphasis on choosing “courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear, and uncertainty.” For better or for worse (and many would argue that Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru falls into the latter category), these “experts” are presented as a source of reliable information for viewers eager to learn about the basics of wellness.
Once subscribers have explored the various concepts that make up “wellness,” they’re encouraged to turn their knowledge into action with Headspace Guide to Sleep and Guide to Meditation. Each episode begins with an explanation of a certain phenomenon, courtesy of — you guessed it — Headspace’s experts, followed by a guided exercise that encourages mindfulness. One imagines that the streamer pursued these programs in an attempt to take reassign meaning to the term "Netflix and Chill" by democratizing wellness for its sleep-deprived, stress-addled customers, but is an app that costs $13/month or $70/year really all that accessible?
In January 2019, Netflix introduced the world to Marie Kondo and the KonMari method, a system of organizing that prompted a global populace to chuck anything in their closets that didn’t “spark joy.” Tidying Up with Marie Kondo wasn’t explicitly marketed as a self-help guide, but it quickly became one, and before long Americans began donating heaps of used items in an attempt to lighten their physical (and spiritual) loads. And it didn't end there: Netflix’s Marie Kondo collab spurred interest in additional titles about minimalism and the dangers of consumerism, such as Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which was originally released in 2016), The Minimalists: Less Is Now, and, to a lesser extent, Get Organized with The Home Edit.
It’s impossible to discuss wellness on Netflix without touching on The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow, the streamer's docuseries collaboration with Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle company. When the series debuted in early 2020, it came under fire for promoting pseudoscientific practices, an allegation that Paltrow dismissed. By adding a disclaimer asserting that The Goop Lab “is designed to entertain and inform — not provide medical advice,” Netflix skirted around the issue, much like an “I’m Just Playing Devil’s Advocate” dude might do on Twitter.
Zac Efron’s recent entry into the “Fringe Ideas” subgenre, Down to Earth, received far less criticism than The Goop Lab, although outlets like Vice highlighted its commitment to “sketchy pseudoscience.” Despite episodes that promote mineral water as medication or coffee as a cause of “adrenal fatigue” (read: exhaustion), Netflix hasn’t yet added a disclaimer to the series; instead, it’s been renewed for a second season, which is currently in production in Australia.
It’s a fine line between education and outright misinformation, and, as The Goop Lab and Down to Earth with Zac Efron make clear, it’s easy to veer off-course. The result? Well…
If you’ve scrolled through Netflix’s documentary library recently, it’s likely you’ve come across a few films that take aim at a “billion dollar industry” with sinister motives. On the surface, documentaries like What the Health, (Un)Well, and The Game Changers aspire to bust popular myths about health and wellness, but cracks start to appear upon closer inspection. What the Health and The Game Changers were condemned by doctors and dietitians for cherry picking facts about meat and plant-based diets, while (Un)Well has been criticized for its “fair and balanced” presentation of wellness quackery, with little editorial comment.
There’s nothing wrong with looking to dispel misconceptions about powerful industries — power to the people — but if you’re going to do it, you should operate from a place of good faith and use reliable, scientifically-proven information. The last thing Netflix needs is a viral documentary debunking a different viral documentary on the service.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.