'Citizen Bio': TV Review

CITIZEN BIO
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Flawed but fascinating.
10/30/2020

Trish Dolman explores a corner of the biohacking world where DIY experimentation and capitalism uncomfortably intersect in Showtime's documentary.

If things had worked out for biomedical entrepreneur Aaron Traywick, he might be alive today, peddling experimental coronavirus cures concocted in kitchens and garages by DIY biohackers who may or may not have any idea what they’re doing. As it is, Traywick was found dead in 2018 at the age of 28, after a doomed stab at establishing a startup that would, among other services, connect ailing (or dysphoric) customers with gene-modification drugs made by lone-wolf amateur scientists. Less than a year before his death, Traywick appeared in a Facebook Live stream in which a computer programmer named Tristan Roberts injected himself with what he hoped was an AIDS cure. (It wasn’t.) That same year, Traywick himself lowered his pants on a convention stage and inserted into his leg an “untested experimental gene therapy” that was supposed to treat his herpes. (It didn’t.)

If you’re getting Elizabeth Holmes or Billy McFarland vibes, that’s because you should. By the end of his short life, Traywick had become well-versed in “we’re gonna change the world” jibber-jabber, and little else. But in certain pockets of America, empty rhetoric, blind optimism and a frothing contempt for expertise seem to be all that’s necessary to recruit followers.

Traywick is our entry point to the controversial world of biohacking in Trish Dolman’s Citizen Bio, a Showtime documentary that intrigues and engrosses despite its conspicuous limitations. The film never really gets inside Traywick’s head, though it probably doesn’t need to — his actions speak for themselves. But at the heart of the doc is a vast disconnect between the unremarkable boy that his middle-class Alabaman relatives knew him as and the conman with the cocaine habit that he would grow up to be.

Dolman also profiles four biohackers who used Traywick as a “magical money faucet” — the reputation the entrepreneur quickly gained — and who may have once been his friends. (That we never learn where Traywick got his investment funds is one of the more frustrating aspects of the doc.) The biohackers aren’t differentiated enough, nor does Dolman offer much insight into why this seemingly representative group of apparently able-bodied young white men are so dedicated to the idea of augmenting themselves, other than biohacking being their chosen mode of giving a middle finger to society. Roberts does suffer from a serious illness, but one biohacker just wants to find a shortcut to bigger muscles, while another risks infection by inserting an RFID chip under his finger skin to... turn his motorcycle on without a key.

As might be expected, this makes for some grisly-for-grisliness’-sake footage of surgeries and gnarly stitches. But mercifully, most of the doc is a lot of talking heads, shot in blue tones for an air of grim futurism. And while the subjects that Dolman spotlights are plenty colorful, I found myself craving more context for (and, OK, debunking of) the assumptions underpinning Traywick’s ambitions and the biohacking community’s in general — like the apparent premise that science happens most readily alone, sans collaboration or a shared database of proven knowledge.

Likewise, Dolman gives too short a shrift to Traywick’s indifference to biomedical ethics — an egregious negligence that led to dreams of injecting AIDS patients in impoverished Venezuela with an untested “cure.” And even if one of his company’s potions were effective, who’s to say that their gene-altering drugs mailed to people’s homes would be administered properly, with informed consent and only the best of intentions?

The biohackers have a Pandora’s box attitude toward their field — once the idea’s out there, there’s no containing it again. But as terrifying as the ramifications of commercialized DIY gene modification might be, the biohackers’ experiences with Traywick and his attempted exploitation of their work seem to have taught them a hard lesson. That development gives Citizen Bio a well-roundedness far more satisfying than Traywick’s hole-filled biography. Grifters come and go, but there’s a sticking wisdom in learning to distrust anyone who tells you everything you want to hear.

Premieres Friday, Oct. 30, at 10p.m. ET/PT on Showtime