There have been few better satirists of the Instagram age than Celeste Barber. In 2015, the Australian actor began recreating posts by the platform’s stars, mimicking the showy-offy poses of Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski et al but replacing their sultry pouts, glossy manes and pert figures with her own unkempt hair and relatably droopy curves. In doing so, Barber skewered this supposedly aspirational imagery: instead of being cool and candid, these pictures were blatantly ridiculous. It was a cathartic act of bubble-bursting that bordered on public service.
The parodies sent Barber into A-list territory herself, at least where social media is concerned: she now has 9.5 million followers on Instagram. All the while, the 40-year-old has been working steadily in Australian TV – including a supporting role in the brilliant motherhood comedy The Letdown. Now, finally, she has a vehicle of her own in Wellmania, a Netflix series that purports to puncture the wellness industry – that slippery modern expectation that women must strive to become weller-than-well via a combination of diet, exercise and other expensive quackery, mainly peddled by photogenic social media stars.
It seems like the perfect fit for Barber – or it would be if Wellmania did what it says on the tin. Instead, the show treats the female self-empowerment trend as a jumping-off point for a charming and highly entertaining dramedy about success, stress and the difficulty of living a balanced life.
The first episode barely touches on the wellness theme. We are catapulted into the world of Liv, a New York-based food writer whose life is a whirlwind of glam parties, intoxicants and one-night stands. Liv is, in other words, an outwardly glitzy example of Messy Millennial Woman – the self-sabotaging, self-absorbed, thrill-seeking and secretly troubled protagonist of a tranche of recent comedy-dramas, from Fleabag to Feel Good, I Hate Suzie to I May Destroy You. (To complete the bingo card, she even has a backstory laced with mysterious trauma.) Liv is thriving professionally, but – in true MMW style – there’s the sense it could all go tits up at any moment. Which indeed it does.
Liv has been tentatively offered a spot on the judging panel of a new competitive cookery show, Banquet Royale, but only if she can come up with a piece of viral journalism that propels her out of the food world and into the mainstream. Yet before that, she needs to return home to Sydney to attend the birthday of her best and oldest friend, Amy (JJ Fong). We know immediately that the next few days do not go to plan; the opening scenes show her scrabbling to get out of an ambulance with a minor head injury, an indirect result of a beachside mugging in which she loses her green card. She is refused another on health grounds, and must get those cholesterol and blood-pressure numbers down in order to get back to the US to take up her TV gig. So she turns to the wellness industry, paying for an intense cleanse intended to “de-garbage my guts”, as Liv so poetically puts it. It could be the makings of the viral article too. She convinces Amy to come along. “Don’t you want to see what they flush out of my filthy hole?”
If the show had hurtled wholeheartedly down this route, it would probably have been a lot funnier. Barber is a great physical comedian and the combination of crude Aussie straight-talking and the glossy aesthetics of middle-class Sydney makes for a pleasing juxtaposition. Then there’s the slapstick: we get Liv tying herself in knots at the gym in an image reminiscent of one of Barber’s Insta parodies, and later smearing blood on the walls after a cupping treatment gone wrong (a practice popularised – inevitably – by wellness queen Gwyneth Paltrow).
Yet it’s hard to imagine these kinds of japes sustaining an eight-episode dramedy. Which means it’s also hard to be particularly disappointed when the show drops this agenda to focus more generally on Liv’s disaster-punctuated quest to get back to New York while throwing US TV executives off the scent of her delay. Along the way, we’re drawn into plot lines involving her mum’s job as a doctor’s receptionist, her brother’s wedding jitters and Amy’s increasingly stale marriage – plus that carefully buried past trauma.
Even if Wellmania doesn’t live up to its own high-concept premise, it is still incredibly watchable – the sort of absorbing, amusing, visually slick TV that is (ironically) perfect to unwind to if you are teetering on the verge of burnout à la our protagonist, yet with enough sour bite to stop it feeling too fluffy. And Barber is fantastically charismatic, delivering Liv’s taboo-baiting lines with a perfect balance of drollness and enthusiasm. It means you can even forgive her for embodying the increasingly tired Messy Millennial Woman trope – especially as she’s self-aware enough to call out her own behaviour in the show’s no-nonsense style. “I am a bit of a selfish prick,” she smiles ruefully in response to her brother’s criticisms. “You’re right.”
• Wellmania is available on Netflix