The Imperfects, a fantasy/sci-fi series now streaming on Netflix, follows a group of people with a rare genetic condition who have begun transforming into mythological monsters years after going through an experimental treatment run by the eccentric and morally questionable geneticist Dr Alex Sarkov (Rhys Nicholson). While the condition they have, AGDS or ‘Acute Genetic Decay Syndrome’, is an invention of the show, the impact it has on their life is extremely relatable.
Abbi (Rhianna Jagpal), a promising biology student, is applying to Oxford, but worries that she won’t be able to get her medication if she moves away from Seattle, let alone overseas. She and Juan (Iñaki Godoy) have both quarantined themselves from their loved ones, Abbi because her pheromones have increased in potency and anyone who catches a whiff is insatiably attracted to her, and Juan because he fears what he will do when he transforms into a chupacabra.
Tilda (Morgan Taylor Campbell) is about to go on tour with her band when she becomes a banshee, her disorder manifesting as hyperacusis (extremely powerful hearing), and a voice powerful enough to do physical damage, but she can no longer sing in key.
I don’t have a genetic condition like these characters – I have an autoimmune condition, Type 1 Diabetes. A lot of my childhood was made up of hospital visits and a lot of my adulthood is spent hoping all my prescriptions are up to date.
As much dramatic potential as there is in a life with an incurable medical condition, representation is scarce. What representation exists is wildly hit-and-miss – so much so that I’m falling over myself giving praise to a series that is just getting the basics right.
I’m used to seeing the unwell character either miraculously cured or dying tragically as a lesson to live life to the fullest or something. As far as representing chronic illness goes, The Imperfects does, for my money, an imperfect (heh) but overall pretty good job. Even though it doesn’t represent a real illness, or even the same symptoms as mine, I related to a lot of the experiences.
When Tilda admits to her boyfriend that she’s running out of her medication, but hasn’t told him because she doesn’t want him to worry, I felt that in my bones.
Compare The Imperfects to another show I’ve been obsessively bingeing, Blindspot. The series follows the FBI task force assigned to the mystery of Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), a woman who wakes up in a duffel bag in Times Square with no memory and covered in tattoos, each of which contains a cryptic clue and a solution to an unsolved crime.
Blindspot is an engaging procedural whose cast has enough chemistry together that I can overlook the frequently hokey writing. One of the many, many subplots involves a character developing a terminal illness that manifests as memory loss and hallucinations, eventually followed by blindness and seizures.
This illness is a serious plot concern until she is cured, and once the cure is administered it’s like she was never sick. The doctor tells her to take it easy for 24 hours and then that’s it, a neurodegenerative disease is dealt with faster than a urinary tract infection. Administering the cure, not the recovery, is what was important to the plot. It’s hard not to see why this is.
Recovery is a slow, often tedious process, and to find the cure a team of people solved a decades-old scavenger hunt to locate an ancient artefact that they traded to a billionaire in exchange for some ultra-rare stem cells. Several months of making small improvements in physical therapy is hard to balance, tonally, with what feels like Indiana Jones moonlighting as a pharmacist.
It’s possible that the reason I resonated with how chronic illness is represented in The Imperfects is because it was a fake illness. Instead of wondering how many of the details they got correct, I could just see AGDS as a kind of pan-sickness. When I see diabetes represented, it’s painfully obvious when the writers do and do not know what they’re talking about.
The X-Files took a swing at portraying diabetes in the 1994 ‘Lazarus’, in which a body-swapping mystery culminates in a diabetic character dying as a result of drinking one full-sugar soft drink and missing one insulin shot.
‘Amuse-Bouche’, a season one episode of Hannibal, was clearly written by someone who understands that death by hyperglycemia takes more than one bad afternoon. Of course, in Hannibal, the facts of said death are replaced with some very effective body horror courtesy of a mushroom-obsessed serial killer, but at least it’s closer to accurate.
Blunt, honest, funny
What I want to see is media that portrays chronic illness honestly and bluntly, and that means that I want to see characters getting on with their lives, adjusting to and accommodating their needs, and finding joy where it can be found. I also want the funny parts of chronic illness, because as much medical trauma as I have, sometimes diabetes is funny (and no, I don’t mean the fat jokes that comedy writers subject us to when they learn about type 2 diabetes).
Here’s an example of the Diabetic Experience (™) that is honest and accurate, and, I think, pretty funny: the treatment for a low blood sugar emergency (hypoglycemia) is to eat sugar, so I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that I know it doesn’t look like an emergency, but my blood sugar is crashing, so this juice/soft drink/bag of sweets/slice of cake/jar of honey that I’m eating with my hands like Winnie the Pooh is in fact a matter of life-or-death.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve kept a pretty narrow focus here, but if you want a more in-depth and far-reaching discussion you should check out Episode 8 of Pill Pop, the podcast I co-host with ScreenHub’s film content lead Silvi Vann-Wall, in which we discuss media representation with our guest, writer and performer Kaitlyn Blythe.
While you’re there, why not listen to all the episodes? It’s pretty good, even if I do say so myself.
The Imperfects and Blindspot are currently streaming on Netflix Australia.