Feels pretty ironic that I’m writing this review in my pyjamas, having been sick all week. But it was also kind of soothing to watch Celeste Barber bumble her way through the wellness industrial complex in Netflix’s new comedy-drama series Wellmania, co-created by Brigid Delaney and Benjamin Law, based on Delaney’s memoir of the same name.
While I haven’t read the book, in her Guardian column Delaney cultivated a kind of determinedly hapless persona that’s definitely present in Wellmania’s protagonist Liv Healy (Barber), a hard-living Aussie-expat food writer who’s on the cusp of professional success in New York when she finds herself trapped back home in Sydney by a web of consular and health bureaucracy. Stubbornly, Liv plans to fast-track a clean bill of health by ‘wellnessing’ the shit out of her predicament – at times, literally.
A relatably unlikeable protagonist
Celeste Barber is perfectly cast as Liv, because her comedy is based on being an Australian everywoman who takes the piss out of polished public self-presentation. She came to fame by parodying fashionistas’ and celebrities’ ridiculous Instagram poses. As well as being physically exuberant, game for the most unflattering pratfall, she also has a wonderfully expressive face. What makes her both funny and adorable is the way she can telegraph her reactions and emotions.
But Wellmania was a challenging watch for me, because it goes easy on Barber’s natural charm, and instead leans very hard on Liv’s unpleasant selfishness. It’s hard to disagree with Liv’s friends and family when they complain that Liv sucks up all the oxygen in a room, making everything about herself.
But at the same time, this person with advanced Main Character Syndrome is the show’s main character, and we’re meant to barrack for her, even as she makes short-sighted mistakes.
Liv is 39, and after years of freelance grinding she’s finally a high-profile enough contributor to a glossy New York food magazine that her editor (Virginie Laverdure, La Brea) recommends her as the ‘wild-card’ third judge for a new TV cooking competition show. Liv is thrilled – but first, she impulsively flies to Sydney for the weekend to surprise her best friend Amy (JJ Fong, Creamerie) for her 40th birthday.
She causes chaos at Amy’s genteel family lunch, to the dismay of Amy’s tradie husband Doug (Johnny Carr, Summer Love), then lands in her childhood bedroom like a boozy cuckoo. While Liv’s widowed mum Lorraine (Genevieve Mooy) does her best to welcome her daughter home, her younger brother Gaz (Lachlan Buchanan, Station 19), a personal trainer, is more focused on his imminent wedding to real-estate agent Dalbert (Remy Hii, Aftertaste, Harrow).
And it turns out Liv will be home for longer than she planned. When her bag is stolen at the beach she loses the green card she needs to re-enter the United States. And after she collapses at the US consulate, Dr Priyanka Singh (Leah Vandenberg) takes one look at Liv’s blood pressure, cholesterol levels and resting heart rate, and refuses her medical clearance to fly.
Over the season’s eight half-hour episodes, Liv embarks on a quick-fix program of juice cleanses, vegan wholefoods, colonic irrigation, spin classes and cupping massages. She enlists her reluctant brother’s help as a trainer – while disregarding most of his advice.
And she engages with more esoteric practitioners, including a glamorous French sex therapist (Miranda Otto), a tarot reader and microdosed tea-drinker (Greta Lee Jackson) and a down-to-earth death doula (Yael Stone) – all to get back to New York. She also meets a wholesome hottie named Isaac (Alexander Hodge, Insecure), whose clean living poses a challenge to Liv’s usual inebriated courtship style.
Recovering from cultural cringe?
While wellness is a global scourge, I enjoyed the dryly Australian humour of Wellmania, which often trends bawdy and scatological. This is a show where people don’t masturbate; they ‘have a maz’. But when I looked up the Wellmania trailer online, the comments are full of Americans saying they were glad Netflix has subtitles because they can’t understand Australian accents. Aur naur, as those carnts think we say.
That’s not a knife – cultural cringe is a knife, and it cuts both ways. Watching Wellmania, I sometimes found myself embarrassed by the fake American accents the Australian actors were using. The show’s vision of the US media didn’t seem as glossy as actual US TV.
The series critiques a particular Australian tendency to valorise professional success in the United States over success at home, which is provincial and mediocre. But it also skewers the way Americans are charmed by even mediocre Australians. (‘Are all Australians so naturally funny?’ one stylist coos to Liv, who deadpans back, ‘Oh no, just me.’)
It will be interesting to see how Wellmania is received by international Netflix viewers, but I’ll wager there’ll be comparisons to Fleabag and other similar shows. I also wonder if Wellmania’s gloriously sunny, beachy visions of inner-eastern Sydney will feel escapist to international viewers. But then the show also gets that Australia is seen internationally as an unserious, second-rate place; Liv encounters a star New York chef who’s basically treating being in Sydney as a drug-fuelled mid-life spring break.
What saves the show for me is Barber’s ability to convey the vulnerability beneath Liv’s bravado. One key aspect of Liv’s personality is her inferiority complex: if I sometimes struggled to believe that someone as hapless as Liv could ever be taken seriously as a journalist, this is also something she herself worries about.
Indeed, when Liv accompanies Amy to the Australian Journalism Awards (spot the background cameo from series co-writer Benjamin Law!), she says she moved to the US because local media found her work vapid.
The show sets up a comparison between Liv and Amy, an investigative journalist at a Guardian-like online news outlet who deals with whistleblowers and gets mentioned in Hansard. And Liv is clearly intimidated by Amy’s serious editor Helen King (Simone Kessell, Yellowjackets).
Still, there are some shining moments when Liv’s journalist self jumps out, and we understand that she’s good at making contacts, has a deep knowledge of her topic and has a striking writerly voice. That said, I had to laugh at Wellmania’s extremely opinion-writer fantasy that writing a performatively vulnerable op-ed piece could break Liv’s career internationally.
It’s what you do with wellness that counts
Because this is an Australian comedy, it’s really a drama at heart – and the writing team gradually teases out the aspects of Liv’s past that might have made her the party animal she is today, and that inform the way she relates to Amy, Lorraine and Gaz.
I appreciated how deftly the various wellness gimmicks were woven into this plot – some as stories for Liv to boost her public profile ahead of the cooking show gig, and others as ways she hopes to cut bureaucratic corners. There are also strong B-stories involving Lorraine’s own professional identity, Amy’s struggle to keep her marriage alive, and Gaz’s pre-marriage jitters.
Ultimately, what could have been a pretty one-note jab at the pretensions and charlatans of wellness culture turns into something more holistic. The show’s message is that both self-denial and self-indulgence should be morally neutral rather than grounds to decide someone’s a good or bad person. (As an aside, I enjoyed the show’s refusal to link Liv’s health to how her body looks, or even to pat itself on the back for depicting ‘real’ bodies.)
The truth Liv discovers is that no success is immediate: you only reap rewards when you commit to a longer, potentially more disruptive process. Ugh. Gross. That sucks, I know. The season ends on a cliffhanger that suggests Liv still has a lot of wellness work to do on herself – but more importantly, that she can’t run away so easily from family, friends and hometown.
Wellmania premieres on Netflix on 29 March.