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True Medical Mysteries Get The TV Treatment On Netflix's 'Diagnosis'

Angel Parker, the subject of the first episode of <em>Diagnosis,</em> rests at the hospital with her boyfriend.
Angel Parker, the subject of the first episode of Diagnosis, rests at the hospital with her boyfriend.

Think true crime, but with diseases instead of murderers.

That's the premise of Diagnosis, the new Netflix documentary series based on Dr. Lisa Sanders' column in the New York Times Magazine. The column, also called "Diagnosis," carries grabby headlines like "He Liked to Work Outdoors on the Weekends. Was It Killing Him?" and "What Was the Cause of the Excruciating Pain in His Shoulders and Hips?" In these columns, Sanders describes mysterious symptoms suffered by a patient — often one without a persuasive diagnosis — and invites readers, whom she calls "the crowd," to weigh in. Doctors and specialists respond, but so do ordinary people who either have similar symptoms and have a diagnosis or have similar symptoms and are still seeking a diagnosis.

The series has seven episodes, each of which focuses on one patient — or in one case, one pair of patients. For example, the first is about Angel, a young woman with awful episodes of muscle pain that are unexplained. We meet her, meet her family, find out her history, follow her through some procedures — and then Sanders writes her up in the column, and we get to follow what happens and what she learns.

There is certainly a popcorn-eating mystery element, as there is in reading the column and as there was in watching the series House, for which Sanders was a consultant. The show creators excel at not tipping their hands too early: Sometimes, a particular theory seems like the one to bet on, and then it's just ... not true. Not borne out by evidence. Sometimes, the patient might have more than one problem, so locating and treating one confirmed problem doesn't resolve the symptoms. The uncertainty of that isn't just good documentary structure; it's closely tied to what makes chronic and unresolved illness so frustrating.

But where the series really shines is in expanding the vision beyond mystery and into explorations of how being sick, particularly without much hope for any effective treatment, affects people's lives — and how health care works or doesn't work for them. In one episode, it becomes clear that a young woman has been sick for so long, and has understood herself to be sick for so long, that it's challenging for her and her mother to re-imagine their close relationship as one where the daughter is healthy.

In the episode that pairs two patients, both of whom have unexplained episodes of paralysis, we are invited to consider their very different experiences with health care. One is a black woman; one is a white male dentist. As Sanders discovers, they have very different reactions to uncertainty from doctors — he is part of the medical world, and much more confident than she is that the doctors are listening to him and genuinely doing all they can. It's in those moments, where it's not just the question of what undiagnosed people have but also why people go undiagnosed, that the show is at its strongest.

To use the true crime analogy just once more, it's rarely the solving of a crime alone that creates a compelling story. It's usually understanding how the crime came to happen, and how it came to be solved. Diagnosis might not always end with the equivalent of an arrest, but it will help you understand how people try to nail down the facts, and what the consequences are when they can't.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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