“So I’m dying,” 19-year-old Claire Wineland says cheerfully into the camera. She pauses, letting that sink in, and drains her mug of tea. Her eyes, visible over the top of the mug, are sparkling with mischief at the cognitive dissonance she has created for the viewer. To her, the line is a punchline; she’s laughing to herself at how people must see her. Her amusement is both perplexing and infectious. She puts down the mug and finishes her own sentence: “… faster than everyone else.”
Wineland has cystic fibrosis and is constantly accompanied by nasal tubes and an oxygen tank. But that’s okay, she explains to the viewer. For her, the most important element of being alive is living a life that you can be proud of in the moment.
This combination of astounding individual and bite-sized takeaway lesson is the essence of “My Last Days,” a three-night special event docuseries beginning Aug. 17. This is the second “season” of “My Last Days,” but the first on television: The CW picked up the project after the first set of episodes were released on SoulPancake. The series, hosted by “Jane The Virgin” star Justin Baldoni, profiles individuals with terminal illnesses about how they are spending their last days. Along with Claire are five other people, some with rare genetic diseases, some with advanced, inoperable cancers. All bring extraordinary fortitude to the camera, speaking directly to the lens about their philosophies and coping strategies.
“My Last Days” doesn’t do them all justice. Wineland, a YouTube personality in her own right, has a self-assured camera presence that makes her story the best constructed and the most moving of the six stories spanning the three episodes. After hearing her talk about how she wants to bring her message to the world, Baldoni surprises her with a public speaking consultation, and her 20-odd minute segment ends with her first address to a big live audience. It’s a smashing success, and so is she.
But in other segments — where the participants seem to be suffering more, or when “My Last Days” pulls stunts reminiscent of the Make-A-Wish Foundation — the docuseries begins to feel a touch exploitative. It is, of course, difficult to find fault with a program designed to showcase the struggles of the terminally ill, and if the CW wants to provide the participants with some perks, they’ve certainly earned them. But while it is a spectacle for a good cause, it is still a spectacle, and one that sometimes is guilty of reveling in its own self-satisfaction. As the series goes on, the gifts and surprises for the participants become more and more elaborate — from a meeting with a public speaking coach and a restaurant trip to a set visit and a surprise wedding.
The series shifts away from focusing on the transient brilliance that humanity is capable of, and towards the discomfiting idea that meeting celebrities or obtaining some free stuff somehow offsets the tragedy of impending death. Maybe those things do offset that kind of knowledge; I don’t know. But the series is better when it is about the struggles and choices of the individuals who are sick, instead of the magnanimity and beneficence of the show’s producers.
Even when its heart is in the right place, “My Last Days” can be maudlin beyond belief. Baldoni carefully repeats a life lesson from each featured participant after their segment, as if the viewers at home will be tested on them later; this is a program so irony-free that it even starts with the time-honored after-school-special introduction: “Hi, I’m Justin Baldoni.”
Of course, the CW’s viewers are largely young people, and SoulPancake — a digital content platform cofounded by “The Office” star Rainn Wilson —describes itself as creating “smart, uplifting, meaningful, shareable content targeted to the Optimistic Millennial.” It’s easy enough to see the age-appropriate branding taking place as the CW further cements itself as vital programming for a generation coming of age. In one episode, Isabel — a wheelchair-bound Guatemalan immigrant with a rare congenital disease, MPS IV — is brought to the set of “Jane The Virgin” to meet Baldoni’s costars, including Gina Rodriguez. Cross-promotion is probably not the only reason that segment exists, but surely, it helps.
That being said, for all of its sentiment and well-intentioned manipulation, “My Last Days” really does have the effect of making the viewer feel moved and grateful. Death — death by natural causes, to be exact — is one of the few frontiers of modern life that television struggles to depict, because it is so antithetical to the other inclinations of pop culture. It is not sexy or dramatic or solvable, and as a result, American programming especially is eager to tune it out. In the limited canon of television that encourages its viewers to be curious about one of life’s greatest and most universal mysteries, “My Last Days” earns a place with its honestly earned sincerity and unwavering interest in people close to leaving life behind.