Published Jan 20, 2020IT Crowd scene-stealer, TV presenter and gifted cultural critic Richard Ayoade recently released Ayoade on Top, his third book of film criticism. This time around, he pirouettes along the high-lowbrow divide, as he overanalyzes View from the Top, an obscure Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com that flopped in 2003. As Ayoade discusses the film's dialogue, direction and place in the broader film canon, it's clear that he's being tongue-in-cheek. Yet something else is also apparent: whether making fun of her or not, there's something about Paltrow that we can't help but root for. How else could Ayoade fill 200 pages with such sincere yet semi-ironic prose?
Even Paltrow is well aware of her place in contemporary culture, toeing the line between willingly playing the heel and sincerely peddling the concept of "wellness" as a gentrified guru. In the weeks leading up to the premiere of The Goop Lab, the new Netflix show where she uses her employees as human test rats in myriad esoteric practices, she quickly sold out of a new product in her online store — the This Smells Like My Vagina candle.
That self-awareness is, unfortunately, the greatest flaw of The Goop Lab. After all, the primary purpose of reality television is schadenfreude, but Gwyneth and company are too clever to let themselves get truly embarrassed, even as they writhe around and moan during all manner of drug trips, chakra realignments and absurd retreats.
The premise of The Goop Lab is, of course, centred around "wellness" — the catch-all term to describe rich people's endless yearning to fill the pervasive sense of emptiness within. Each episode begins with Gwyneth and her minions sitting around the Goop office with a guest. The interior design of the office serves as a perfect representation of the show's sterile brightness — all safe millennial pinks with inoffensive gold accents, it looks like the new poke place on your block that likely won't survive the year. Her employees are the sort of people who remind you of all of your friends' roommates over the years — familiar, but not quite relatable, the sort of people you'd struggle to maintain a conversation with when passing them in the hall.
The format of the show takes us on a different pathway for wellness, suggesting all of the ways we could try to cure the maladies of being human if we had unlimited budget, time and contacts. There are episodes on magic mushrooms, cold temperature workouts, age-defying diets, the female orgasm and psychic powers. All of the episodes open with a disclaimer that they are not offering medical advice, before being peppered with factoids about their respective subjects. They also all require staffers to embark on elaborate and hilariously pretentious trips around the globe.
The show unfortunately finds the wrong kind of balance, meaning for all of its colourful characters and vibe-chasing spiritual endeavours, it still feels like more of an aesthetically sound infomercial than anything else, like Dr. Drew if his show was designed by one of those people whose Instagram is curated with white bars so that all of the pictures are the same shape. In fact, the show's most memorable moments happen when it steps outside of product placement and into humanity.
One such moment is "The Pleasure Is Ours," the show's third and undeniably best episode. Centred around the teachings of sex educator Betty Dodson, the episode demolishes taboos about female sexuality, pressing up against centuries of male-focused sex education and unpacking the accompanying baggage. That means a touching moment when Dodson shows a Goop employee how to achieve her first self-administered orgasm, and a downright brave moment when the show depicts a half-dozen uncensored vulvae to counter the male-gazey sameness of vulva depictions in media past. It's here that The Goop Lab feels less like a group of privileged Angelino punishers trying to find the best kombucha recipe, and more like an important piece of television.
Of course, the other way The Goop Lab could've been great would be to lean into the aloofness of its subjects, but there are only a handful of times where the show's staffers stop pretending and actually let their guards down. Aside from a psychic medium who won't stop talking about Shrek, the best of these moments happen in the very first episode, when all of the Goop staffers are discussing what it's like to live with trauma. Paltrow, stonefaced, says, "Being the person people believe me to be is inherently traumatic." The show never lives up to this gasp-worthy moment again.
These moments of extreme good and bad are too few and far between, however, and The Goop Lab is mostly a fairly boring look at some Whole Foods types as they try to achieve perfection in their already pretty great lives. The rest of us, with our stomach aches and bad skin and accumulating debt and general sense of dread, will struggle to find something to relate to in the viewing experience.