'My Last Days': TV Review
Justin Baldoni's docuseries about people living with terminal diseases is manipulative, but only sometimes exploitative.
This Sept. 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the premiere of The CW's H8r, one of the worst and most ill-conceived shows ever developed, programmed and canceled after four episodes by a television network.
Hosted by Mario Lopez, H8r posited a world in which D-list celebrities like Snooki deserved to be granted confrontation-style revenge against ordinary people whose greatest sin was authoring negative comments about the alleged stars online. It was the limitedly powerful wielding their clout pointlessly against the entirely powerless while Lopez smirked and facilitated this reassertion of fame and fiat.
I'm never going to understand why The CW enabled H8r and its folly, but I take some solace in its speedy failure.
Attempted redemption for H8r, intentionally or unintentionally, comes in the saccharine form of My Last Days, a web series from Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni getting a three-night special event run on The CW. Benevolent TV intervention is always a better look than malevolent TV intervention.
As Baldoni, sporting a somber "I'm not shooting today" beard, explains, My Last Days is about "remarkable people facing one of life's most difficult challenges ... terminal illness." Each of these three episodes, all made available to critics, features the stories of two fairly young people facing death, but choosing instead to focus on living lives of meaning. The premiere showcases the age-range extremes, focusing on 19-year-old Claire Wineland, recording charming YouTube videos about her travails with cystic fibrosis, and 43-year-old Darth Vader (not his given name), who isn't letting leukemia keep him from participating in the high-endurance Tough Mudder competitions.
The premiere episode reveals how effective My Last Days can be when it's at its least structured. Claire is funny, quick, camera-friendly and surrounded by a memorable family. She's a character from Fox's short-lived Red Band Society brought to life, and while we see her nebulizing and getting treatment and in clear pain, the segment's concentration is on her short-term amusements, like sneaking out to a Bernie Sanders rally, and her long-term goals, including using her remaining time as a public speaker and advocate. Claire wears every emotion broadly and you'll be sobbing watching her joke with her younger sister. In contrast, Darth Vader is harder to read, pushing his fears and anxieties to the background as he participates in these insane obstacle races designed by British Special Forces, battling for control over his own body, his own pain and, at least in his head, his own mortality. It's Darth's relationship with his daughter Alexis, far less reserved and wisely a co-focus of the segment, that'll induce bawling.
During the first episode, Baldoni's intervention is minimal and the host's use of his own celebrity is underplayed. An allegedly famous public speaking expert and a Tough Mudder executive are enlisted for brief appearances, but there's no sense that My Last Days is trying to be Make-a-Wish The Series or Hospice All-Stars With Justin Baldoni. For one night, My Last Days is manipulative as all heck, but it isn't exploitative and even if I'm too cynical to cry at this, I'm more than aware that others will not be and if you like the power of a good emotional purge, this will probably do the job.
When it's about the people, My Last Days is mawkish-but-earnest and with its intentions unobscured, I can respect that. When it's about the stunts, that line into exploitation territory vanishes.
The second episode begins with Kat, a food lover battling ironic stomach cancer in a segment that mostly sticks to the formula of the first episode, as she wanders around her Las Vegas hometown and learns to make deviled eggs with her favorite chef. It's the second segment, with wheelchair-bound Isabel, a 20-year-old with a rare enzyme disorder, that finally felt like My Last Day pushed too far. Not only does Isabel get a meeting with the cast of Jane the Virgin, but she gets a hot air balloon ride preceded by Baldoni pushing her to list three words she's feeling at the moment. All the while, I was watching and wondering why plot details about Isabel's immigration status were introduced, but then never explored, or why there's so much talk about Isabel's friends, but then she seems to take her balloon ride alone.
The more you show the seams, the more a show like this frustrates me and from this segment on through the end of the third night, My Last Days is all seams. Once Baldoni intoned, "And if you like surprise weddings, stay tuned ..." before the last of the six stories, the transition from docuseries to hidden-camera schlockfest felt complete.
I can't say for sure who lost faith in the intended "Life being lived" formlessness of My Last Days and decided structure was necessary, but I'm guessing that was the same person who demanded Baldoni appear in bookends around each segment and probably the same person who made the not-so-brilliant suggestion, "Hey, you know how The CW has lots of superhero shows? Justin, can you keep saying over and over and over again that these are real-life superheroes?" Whoever that person was, they made a mess of My Last Days. It's bad enough that Baldoni is posed beatifically, bathed in artificial light, in a shoddy living room set featuring pictures of each of his My Last Days subjects, but having the likable star explain the lesson he learned from each person is verging on offensive. It isn't just that each of the subjects articulates the lessons you should take from them very clearly, but the idea, one I don't think Baldoni originally intended, that this is a show about celebrities learning lessons from dying kids is one that shouldn't be underlined. At least let the subjects have the last word. Don't rebrand inspirational thought.
So with that in mind, I'll let Claire have the final word on the theme of My Last Days: "Death is inevitable, but living a life that we are proud of, that is something we can actually control."
My Last Days didn't make me cry, but if you're bothering to watch at all, you'll probably weep. For me, it was enough that half of the three installments didn't put up self-imposed stumbling blocks to add annoyance, because I didn't set out to be a "h8r," no apologies to Mario Lopez, not with something so well-intentioned. Definitely fast-forward through the Baldoni bookends, though.
Executive producers, Justin Baldoni, Rainn Wilson, Ahmed Musiol, Farhoud Meybodi, Sam Baldoni
Cast: Justin Baldoni, Claire Wineland, "Darth Vader," Kat Lazo, Isabel Bueso, Kendrick David Evans, Jess Oldwyn
Premiere date: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)