Afflicted Review (TV Series, 2018)
Disclaimer: I am not a medical expert and cannot speak to the veracity of the doctors, therapists, and treatments presented in this review. Unlike the show, I am not blindly casting aversions towards people for...unspecified reasons. I am using the edit of the medical professionals to discuss the poor treatment of the subjects in the series.
When I had cable, I made a bad habit out of binge watching medical realty shows on TLC and Discovery. I really could not get enough of shows about mystery illnesses, extreme surgeries, and rare conditions. The shows were utter trash--poorly edited, melodramatic for no reason, and filled with a false sense of artificial hope. Does it really matter if the subject revealed to be dead by the end of the special one time got dropped off in the shallow end of a pool and rolled around for bit? Not to be insensitive, but I'm not the one who decided to counteract 50 minutes of misery--hospital visits, medicinal montages, recollections of the worst moments in their lives, high risk surgery, blatant inaccessibility and suffering out in public--with a trip to the community center for poorly staged celebration of little triumphs.
The shows did at least attempt to impart medical knowledge in this package. The editing style was to create an entertaining or engaging show. You learned a little bit about their lives--hobbies, friends, lovers, families--but also learned about the history of the conditions, treatments, and state of research. The melodramatic scoring and forced personal triumph narrative were necessary evils to get nationwide exposure to these people and their medical conditions. The participants obviously agreed to be filmed, but I don't think they agreed to be treated like a modern day freak show.
Afflicted is a documentary-style reality TV series on Netflix about people living with chronic illnesses. You can probably tell where I sit on the series by that introduction. It's terrible.
People with invisible illnesses suffer every day of their life. I could see the desire to appear in a program that raises awareness for their condition. A few of the participants state as much in the final moments of the series. That's great. Let the world know about Chronic Lyme Disease or Mold Sensitivity so that maybe people will put their money where there mouth is and donate to organizations that are actively researching these conditions. Or maybe it is an attempt to be seen by someone who might have the answer to their condition. Or maybe they just want to be listened to and acknowledged for once.
I highly doubt that the participants agreed to be filmed in a Making of a Murderer/gotcha! style documentary about how maybe they're frauds who have severe mental illness or are faking it for attention. Skepticism is healthy. Questioning some of the treatments these people undergo is part and parcel of medical series and documentaries. There genuinely are scam artists out there who will claim that thinking secret codes or drinking potentially toxic substances will detox the body of all pain and illness. Some people do fake medical problems, as well, for financial gain with online fundraisers or scams. The problem comes from the focus of this series.
Afflicted refuses to cast aspersions on any medical expert who appears on the show. I'll make up a treatment to prove my point. If I, Doctor R. O. Bert, claimed that I could cure Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity by playing my clarinet with the bell pressed directly against key sound-reactive toxic degenerators in the body, I deserve to be questioned. On Afflicted, I would be presented as an expert in my field with no aspersions cast my way.
The person I was treating would be presented as someone with questionable judgement, wasting their money on a something that will never cure them because what they have probably isn't a real illness anyway. Sure, my patient would state very clearly what they believe they were getting out of my treatments, but the title cards would rebuke their statements. So would their caretakers and a rotating team of psychiatrists doing talking head interviews. Someone might say they don't believe the treatment is working, but it's always edited to be a poor choice on the part of the patient and not predatory behavior by the doctor.
Afflicted's thesis is that every invisible illness investigated on the show is actually a psychological issue. They're making up their own condition and somehow causing themselves pain for...unspecified goals. The show is very clear that they just don't believe people who are shown doubled over in pain and at their wit's end over allergies to household cleaners or pain caused by people using cellphones and wireless microphones. The evidence is stacked to the rafters in each episode. Episode six in the seven part series is literally about how the mind produces pain (a grade-school level analysis--did you know our brains control our bodies and process all of our different physical sensations as well as our thoughts?) and sets out to destroy the credibility of three of the subjects who have the audacity to push back against this narrative and defend their pain and conditions.
But why would they fake it? That's the question the show refuses to answer because they can't. They will have friends and families constantly say "I don't know if they're just making it up" or "the pain started when they were stressed so I don't know," but never explain why they think a rational reaction to stress is spending their entire life's savings to gut their house to remove literal mold infestations or to abandon their entire life to live in the only climate in America that does not naturally produce their allergens. Editing can be a destructive force when wielded by people with bad intentions. I genuinely do not believe that these people who also uprooted their lives to care for a friend or family member really believe they're being defrauded and taken advantage of. I do believe that producers kept asking those questions and split up single responses into multiple sound bytes used throughout the series.
It's even clearer this is happening when two of the subjects have incredibly supportive friends and families who would do anything to make their loved one feel better. There literally cannot be the "maybe it's not real" moment if the people on screen refuse to say it. They just get more editing intervention from unconnected, outside experts who are presented as having a lot to say about patients they never actually met.
If you've ever seen a doctor brought on a news program with any integrity, you will see that they refuse to diagnose patients they haven't actually examined. They might be brought on to discuss how illegal drugs use could lead to paranoia or how depression manifests itself in different people. An ethical doctor will not speak specifically about a patient who they have never seen. Further, any professional doctor who believes in integrity will not directly discuss the specifics of their own patient's medical records and conditions due to confidentiality laws and regulations without consent. The doctors treating the patients in Afflicted are not the problem. If they're on camera with the patient, everyone had to agree to it.
Afflicted gives a voice to a series of medical experts who are edited into the series as if they are specifically talking about the subjects in the series. This is not the case. They are speaking in clear generalities about how, say, Chronic Lyme Disease can manifest physical and mental symptoms. You know, textbook diagnosis stuff that doesn't infringe on anyone's right to privacy. The show will slot that interview right smack in the middle of a family member questioning if the person could be making up the condition for...unknown reasons, creating the impression that medical experts believe anyone claiming to have chronic pain caused by any of these conditions just has untreated mental illness.
This becomes incredibly insulting for a number of reasons. One, some of the subjects of the show point blank admit that they have mental health problems. Someone with Chronic Lyme Disease choosing to focus on curing their debilitating pain instead of diverting energy and funds to medicating for General Anxiety Disorder (and actually outright saying they don't want to medicate for that) is treated with the most skepticism. The next least trusted subject is a therapist who has multiple conditions. She admits to being stressed and even feeling brain fog in relation to her physical symptoms, but also outright defends herself when asked about the mind/body connection the show claims causes all of these problems. I don't know why being a strong self-advocate for your own well being is so offensive to the producers of this show, but it clearly is based on the editing.
These two subjects are questioned by everyone in their lives as to whether or not they're REALLY suffering from any physical condition. The former makes it very clear that he has to abandon his dream job because he is in too much pain to do it, while the later makes it clear that she is incredibly satisfied with her professional and personal life and just hopes to make the pain go away so she's not a burden on herself and other people in her life. These two, more than the other subjects on the show, are presented as unhinged and questioned every step of the way because they won't lie down and let the show claim again and again that they must REALLY suffer from untreated mental illness. It's disgusting.
The other subjects do not get off lightly. They're treated as sad and desperate for pursuing experimental treatments. The doctors who claim shooting ozone into a blood transfusion are not questioned on the veracity of their claims or for proof of their treatments; the judgment of the show's subjects who are just trying to do anything to cure their chronic pain are questioned for trying so many different treatments. In the most damning sequence of the entire series, a woman's visit with her chiropractor has the chiropractor point blank admit that he's treating her with placebo in a series of talking head interviews. His goal is not to physically cure anything but to convince the woman that taking Zinc every day is the cure to being able to be around people who might use detergents, soaps, or perfumes she's allergic to. The woman is treated as out of her mind and willing to believe any snake oil salesman with the chiropractor who literally admits to taking her money for placebo treatments is treated as the voice of reason.
I don't know what the intentions of Afflicted are. Until episode six, I genuinely believed that maybe the showrunners had good intentions when they pitched the series but were in over their heads; then they went and essentially vilified all their subjects as scam artists and frauds for...unspecified reasons and now I don't know what they were thinking. If you want to make a series about fraudulent therapies and medical treatments, make a series about that. Penn & Teller's Bullshit had wonderful episodes debunking therapies that appear in this show as pure scams. Documentaries have looked into medical frauds, failings of the insurance industry, and people fighting for funding to research rare conditions with no known cures. There are also enough scam artists who have defrauded people out of thousands of dollars by faking chronic illnesses to research and produce a documentary series about them. Any of these could have been a fair thesis and angle for a TV series on chronic illness.
Afflicted places all the blame for the suffering of people living with chronic illness on the people living with chronic illness. They might have gotten away with it, too, if they weren't dumb enough to suggest Chronic Lyme Disease isn't a REAL illness. No, we know Lyme Disease is real because we're constantly warned to protect against ticks when we go out in the wild and to check for the signature bulls-eye pattern of the bite when we head back inside. It's a known medical condition with severe physical consequences that cannot be invalidated just by splicing in psychiatrists saying "mental health problems can have physical effects on the body" and convincing family members to say "I don't know if they're making it up" in multiple interview.
Take a moment in episode four as the example that proves my reading of the series. A woman suffering from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity constantly complains about new pain when the production company is filming her. After traveling to a town in West Virginia that has severe limits on what kinds of powerlines and broadcasting systems can be used to protect an expensive telescope, she meets up with other people who have EHS. One of these women pulls out a power meter and calls out the production for lying to everyone. She's pinging signals and calling out people for having wireless technology on that they said was not being used. This woman reveals to the subject of the series that they were using wireless technology that had no impact on filming the episode and that they admitted to not needing the technology to her. She is warned to protect herself from the production and demand her health and well being over the TV production.
The show tries to paint the other EHS person as not all there, but they include enough of the sequence to show that they are betraying the trust of the show's subject by using hidden wireless technology they agreed to shut off on the first day of the shoot. Since this isn't a documentary about the validity of EHS as a diagnosis and the issue of secret medical triggers planted by production is never addressed again, they very easily could have not included this scene at all and come across as far better people.
The production team of Afflicted does not seem to care about the well-being of the people they're filming. I don't know how the show got greenlit or what the pitch was, but their behavior onscreen and their deceptive editing makes it very clear they are not acting in good faith with the show. I strongly discourage you from watching the series as it's more exploitative than any series or special I've ever seen on TLC claiming to be a documentary.
If you still do choose to watch (and again, I discourage you from doing so), have empathy for the clear suffering of the subjects and choose to do your own research if you have questions about their symptoms or their treatments. Just know that the conditions explored in this series are under-researched and are often a catch-all term for a series of symptoms and not a direct diagnosis. One person's Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can manifest in very different way's from another's, and that does not mean either person is lying or faking; it means we need to do more to support patients, research rare conditions, and not fall for mind over body claims from reality show producers trying to create a gotcha show out of people's suffering.
Afflicted is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch at your own risk. It's enraging in the worst ways.
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