“Being the person people believe me to be,” Gwyneth Paltrow says in the first episode of her new unscripted series, “is inherently traumatic.”
The fact that this remark will likely induce eye rolls proves the point. Paltrow, in her period of fame as perhaps the most prominent embodiment of wellness culture, is followed as or more closely by detractors as admirers. Enduring life as both person and persona has its purposes though: For one thing, it can be weaponized. On “The Goop Lab,” Paltrow’s new Netflix show documenting her post-science pursuit of an optimized life, she’s a diffident presence, allowing her employees to receive various treatments while she observes. But perhaps the greatest sign of her success in using that about her others cannot stand is that although she herself is often absent, her sensibility is recognizable, and — on the show as, increasingly, in our culture at large — it is everywhere.
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“The Goop Lab” follows a relatively unadorned format: A self-styled expert on a method of healing or growth that exists beyond the boundaries of the known shows up at the Goop offices — a sort of Wonka chocolate factory of California boho culture, with rose-toned upholstery and leafy plants framing all who enter — to speak with Paltrow and her top editorial staffer, Elise Loehnen. The expert explains his or her methods, often taking a shot at the medical establishment, and then Paltrow’s employees try out a version of the practice, interspersed with testimonials from non-Goopers about how their lives have been changed by it.
It all goes down so smoothly that there is legitimate cause for concern, as when a guest preaching the power of psychedelic mushrooms criticizes the use of psychiatric medication, noting, “As a culture, we’re hungry for something to help us heal.” (The presumption that SSRIs, say, don’t do exactly that is somehow still disappointing despite how obvious it seems that it’d be put forth here.) On at least one occasion (the episode dealing with female sexual health), the topic of the day is legitimate and worthy, as if to inoculate the show against charges of pseudoscience. Other times, it’s less troubling than daffy, as when a medium compares those who don’t believe in psychics to flat-earthers: “Ideas are laughed at before they’re accepted, right?” To all of these visitors, Paltrow exhibits a creamy, implacable curiosity, stopping short of ever seeming truly sated by what she learns or of giving much insight into the ways in which the projects intersect with her own life. We meet her as ringleader but not, really, as participant; her quest perpetually goes on.
This, perhaps, is what the general critique of Paltrow tends to miss: She is widely perceived as a self-satisfied or smug celebrity evangelist, but it is hard to recall a public figure who has made more grist out of being dissatisfied with herself. Loehnen refers to her boss as “G.P. — Guinea Pig,” and the analogy is apt: Paltrow’s entire project in the time since she’s largely walked away from acting has been an obsessively granular remaking of herself, a project about which she uses Goop to beam out updates. (Goop has risen to great success thanks to general interest in Paltrow’s body and what she does to it, but one senses she’d be doing this regardless.) One of the most striking elements of “The Goop Lab” is the rare “experiment” in which Paltrow takes part, a “fast-mimicking diet” in which she seems to subsist off soup brewed from powders and tea. In one self-shot video, Paltrow says to the camera, “I feel oddly weak,” before being corrected by her husband that there’s nothing odd about it at all. Wrapped in a chunky sweater she can’t stop pulling around herself, she tells her daughter Apple, “I’m dying for chia pudding. Nothing has ever sounded more decadent or delicious to me.”
There’s a chilly blast of reality here: A Hollywood star who looks like Paltrow does so because she goes on fasts, and looping her teenage daughter in on the process is just what comes naturally. (Paltrow admits in the episode that she restricts her food intake frequently, a habit her children hate because of its effect on her mood.) After her period of privation (which a blood draw suggests has added years to her life — a claim it barely feels worth contesting), Paltrow, in her thrillingly flat, disengaged tone, says, “Oh, I’m back to my french fries,” a statement that so contradicts what came before as to make a fitting end to the episode. Why go on from there?
These are the moments Paltrow’s critics tend to grab onto — when the avatar of a sort of superior wholesomeness insists, to a less than perfectly convincing degree, that she still eats junk food. But “The Goop Lab” also makes evident what Paltrow’s ultimate, powerful advantage is. Insisting on certain truths — that existing on soup and tea is not healthy, that pharmaceuticals can help people in ways mushrooms or doing yoga in the snow cannot, that many psychics are charlatans — is productive. But anyone who’s ever fantasized about self-improvement may be able to see how it seems not just unsporting but grimly humorless to press the point in the face of Paltrow’s pose of simple curiosity and just-asking-questions. There’s a reason that snake oil was successful long before Paltrow discovered it: Slick things are shiny too.
“The Goop Lab” is only the latest iteration — a word Paltrow, with her Silicon Valley-borrowed tendency to treat the human body as a tech problem, might particularly appreciate — of a long-term trend in American life. The lack of understanding of humanity’s one unfixable bug, that we all must die, is a lacuna that is easily filled with charisma. Paltrow is a compelling host — not giving too much of herself away, ever stopping short of pure endorsement of any topic even as she gives it air — on what is a carefully structured, elegantly built, compulsively watchable show about, mainly, complete nonsense. No wonder she makes people so very mad, and too bad getting mad at someone who insists she’s just trying to figure things out like you are is about the least effective tactic available. Paltrow may still be on her quest. But she’s got a few things totally figured out.