Netflix‘s latest medical docu-series, the frustrating and bleak Afflicted, follows the lives of seven debilitated patients, all diagnosed with inexplicable chronic illnesses. In figuring out what’s psychosomatic and what isn’t, the viewer rides down the rabbit hole beside the desperate sufferers, into the offices of doctors who all have the answers.
Afflicted explores a growing phenomenon of people being actively allergic to human progress—the mold in buildings, various electrical wavelengths, chemical sensitivities. At the time cameras arrive for each patient, they’ve all already been diagnosed with a load of ailments, two with a controversial chronic version of Lyme disease.
Some of their fixes are drastic. For example, chronic mold sensitivity sufferer Bekah—a psychic and a witch—lives with her doting boyfriend, Jesse, in a van in the California desert. Jamison, suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis, remains bed-ridden and in constant pain in every part of his body. Yet, it is his parents that bring up hypochondria.
Carmen suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), which gives her unusual pains and outbreaks, similar to Chuck McGill on Better Call Saul but even worse. For her, any electrical wave is dangerous, so that means no cell phones, Wi-Fi, or even bright fluorescent lights. Her desire to move six hours away to an electromagnetic dead zone gives her loving husband significant pause.
Jill is a New Yorker in a relationship with an incredibly understanding and generous woman who helps her deal with a host of issues that are costing them thousands of dollars they don’t have. In fact, the relationships and each of the patients’ loved ones’ willingness to endure alongside them is notable, even with inconsistencies and new determinations that seem preposterous.
Where Afflicted gets occasionally frustrating is its stunted through-lines. Because the show partly plays as a series of personal discoveries for the viewer—especially with Jill, former actress Pilar, and Bekah—the tracking of deeper origins aren’t revealed. The show mostly neglects external factors, such as prior stresses and traumas.
Instead, there’s the consistent surprise at new (and usually questionable and opportunistic) diagnoses. Where’s the fun in fixing the root of the problem?
Creator Dan Partland does a tremendous service in also showing periodic viewpoints of medical experts as counters to the doctors and healers in the sufferers’ lives.
Where Afflicted eventually wins is in Partland’s seesaw portrayal of the victims and their loved ones, which would not work in any other series. Partland plays each situation in three avenues: the patient, their family or significant other, and through an empathetic skeptic’s viewpoint. He doesn’t necessarily doubt what each sufferer feels; he subtly challenges and teases the origins of the disorders.