'Afflicted' Executive Producer Responds to Controversy, Protest Letter Signed by Lena Dunham, Monica Lewinsky
Dan Partland addresses the backlash facing the docuseries and complaints by participants. "Our intention was to give the world a compassionate window into the difficulties of patients and families suffering from elusive and misunderstood illnesses, to humanize their struggle and to show that struggle in all its complexity."
Netflix's docuseries Afflicted debuted Aug. 10, delivering an insider's look at the lives of seven individuals battling chronic, sometimes baffling illnesses like mold toxicity, wifi and electricity sensitivity and Lyme disease.
But within days, those participants — and some of their family members — banded together to protest the ways in which they were portrayed on the seven-episode show via of a series of essays published Aug. 19 on Medium. Their claims ranged from misrepresentations of personal stories, a focus on psychosomatic causes rather than scientific research, and allegations of broken promises by producers, some of whom worked on the Emmy winning Intervention. Nick Dinnerstein, whose sister Bekah is profiled on Afflicted, wrote, "Afflicted constructs a deceitful narrative that systematically ignores scientific evidence, takes statements out of context, manipulates timelines, omits important facts and gives voice to non-specialists talking outside of their fields — all to sow doubt in the audience’s minds as to the legitimacy and reality of these very real and dangerous diseases."
The controversy has continued with a new letter, this one published Sept. 17 on Medium and signed by nearly four dozen names including Lena Dunham, Monica Lewinsky, Ally Hilfiger, and Unrest filmmaker Jennifer Brea as well as researchers, physicians and authors. The lengthy letter is addressed to Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos, vp original documentary and comedy programming Lisa Nishimura, vp unscripted originals and acquisitions Brandon Riegg, and vp inclusion strategy Verna Myers, and ends with a request that "Afflicted be immediately removed from the service. We further request that a formal apology be released that includes a statement of Netflix’s future plans for the programming of documentaries, television, comedy specials, and feature films about disability and projects that include talent, key crew and/or consultants with disabilities."
For the first time, Emmy winning producer Dan Partland, president of Doc Shop Prods. and executive producer of Afflicted, is responding to the backlash facing his show, which has received a fair amount of media attention over the past month.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Partland says they are "saddened and upset" by some of the reactions to the Netflix series. "Our intention was to give the world a compassionate window into the difficulties of patients and families suffering from elusive and misunderstood illnesses, to humanize their struggle and to show that struggle in all its complexity," he continues. "The participants in Afflicted showed incredible courage in sharing their stories and we respect the thoughtfulness with which they have entered the online discussion, even when they have been critical of us. The conditions they, and others, are suffering from are real and deserve more attention and a more thoughtful discussion."
Partland also calls it "heartbreaking" that some of those who appear on the show have been experiencing abuse on social media. "There are no villains in these stories; the patients just want to get well, the loved ones just want to support them, and the doctors just want to help; and they all deserve our compassion.”
Though Partland does not address the request that the show be removed, a source says Netflix does not have plans to remove it from the platform.
For their part, the participants of the show, all of whom signed the new letter, claim that their lives have been damaged as a result of appearing on the show. The letter does praise the streamer's other content by singling out specific films for handling these issues in a more positive way. "The participants are ... receiving intense online harassment, having their professional reputations questioned and having friends turn against them. And if Afflicted remains on Netflix, it will hurt many more people," the letter states. "Netflix has been an important platform for this conversation with programs such as The Punk Rock Singer; My Beautiful, Broken Brain; To The Bone; and Unrest. Yet Afflicted was helmed by apparently able-bodied people and displayed the disabled as curiosities for the entertainment of others."
The full letter can be found here.