In his personal life, Prince Harry has emerged only recently from a period of great pain. In his professional life, as evidenced by his new Apple TV Plus series “The Me You Can’t See,” the tricky part is just beginning.
Oprah Winfrey’s interview earlier this year with the former working royal and his wife Meghan put utterly modern confessionalism to work to explode the image Buckingham Palace had cultivated over centuries. The pair’s revelations about their alienation from what they described as a restrictive, unfeeling and openly racist “firm” raised painful and pointed questions about what lay ahead for a family so bound up by tradition that it broke members apart. For all the chaos and noise of that moment, though, it was possible to wonder, too, what the future held for a couple that had now told a story with a beginning (their coupling), a middle (their near-undoing), and an end (their seemingly boundless future outside the monarchy, in what was once referred to as private life). Harry and Meghan were unburdened, and were disentangled from the origin of their global fame. They plainly had interest in doing good work, but that would be perhaps most easily accomplished by holding our attention. And what was left to share?
“The Me You Can’t See” provides an answer: Recapitulation and amplification of that same story, in the attempt to serve a greater good. This series was co-created by the prince and Winfrey, and both of these globally famous figures run through past suffering in order to illustrate the challenges of maintaining mental health. Harry narrates his past several years, during which time he entered therapy, while other guests speak to camera and show off elements of their routines. Individuals who’ve struggled in public — including Lady Gaga and NBA player DeMar DeRozan — share time with individuals with less widely-known stories, including a young woman describing her experience of schizophrenia and an Olympic-bound boxer whose obsessive-compulsive disorder threatens to control her life. Directed by the filmmakers Asif Kapadia and Dawn Porter, the episodes feature strikingly shot and painfully intimate moments throughout its conversations, from Lady Gaga ticking her thumb nervously against her palm as she recounts her experience of self-harm to boxer Ginny Fuchs desperately cleaning her shoes with Clorox wipes or throwing out toothbrush after toothbrush because the packaging didn’t feel right to her. Though the end goal here is pushing through to healing, this is often punishing viewing — and, at full hour-long episodes, there’s plenty of punishment to go around.
Little wonder that we tend to return to the familiar: For all this delving into the psyches of various subjects, and although both Winfrey and Harry both log time on-camera, it’s Harry (credited here as Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex) who is the show’s connective tissue. The episodes, structured around stages of the search for help, track Harry’s own experience — in the first episode, recognizing the need for help; in the second, actually asking for it; in the third, finding a method that works. For Harry, this includes EMDR therapy, a practice combining the recollection of upsetting memories with physical stimulation that can be used to address post-traumatic stress disorder. He also discusses a set of incidents that will be familiar to anyone who saw the earlier Winfrey interview, though, here, they’re told solely from Harry’s perspective; at least in the first three episodes, Meghan, whose past thoughts of suicide Harry describes, does not appear.
The impact of these revelations is blunted, somewhat, both by repetition and by context. Both co-creators seem to be striving for the point that trauma is a universal fact of life, that we all have something terrible that we’ve been through. This is not, strictly speaking, new: Winfrey has made her name on shared intimacy with her audience. But this show struggles to make its case, growing more successful the more time elapses between Harry’s appearances. Even a viewer who believes that all pain is valid to the person experiencing it, and who believes that Harry’s life of constricting privilege and rigidity left real scars — neither of which seems like it ought to be a controversial point — may run up against the limits of their sympathy when the show cuts from Harry’s narrative to an adult Syrian refugee mentoring children who’ve fled their homeland.
Placing in such close proximity the depths of human suffering in the 21st century with Harry’s admittedly challenging and sad tale only emphasizes a certain indulgence on the part of “The Me You Can’t See,” a burnishing of Harry’s legend that works at cross-purposes with the mission of the show. Among the ways therapy works is the stripping-away of pretense. Conducting a session in public, in a context meant to restate and emphasize the harms done to the very famous person in treatment and to help justify his decision to restart his life, would seem to do the opposite.
Much of that restatement, to be clear, holds our attention. “Family members have said, just play the game and your life will be easier,” Harry says at one point, over suggestively-placed footage of his younger self standing with his brother, Prince William. “But I’ve got a hell of a lot of my mom in me.” Indeed: The late Princess Diana was open in the press about ways in which the royals’ treatment of her had destabilized her mental health. She was, like her second son, passionate about charitable work and almost painfully open-hearted and earnest at moments. And she was aware, as in the famous “Panorama” interview of 1995, of the power of using the press as a therapeutic sounding-board, and to treating the surfacing of disputes and of anguish as, if not a net good, then a painful necessity. Diana’s stated desire, in that interview, to be “a queen of people’s hearts” expresses itself, a generation later, in her son attempting to find a common thread between his own experience and the rest of humanity. The hazard he faces is that this trick works in reverse, too: In “The Me You Can’t See,” too often, the breadth of human experience tends to end up relating back to one particular person.
It may well have taken the combined and compounding notoriety of both Harry and Winfrey to get this show made, but Winfrey brings to it a well-honed set of talents: She’s, once again, an empathetic and precise interlocutor for Harry, who tends to drift when alone on-camera. (As previously, Winfrey is operating less journalistically than as a sort of friendly and inquisitive host, a posture only emphasized by the fact that she and Harry are creatively collaborating here.) She recalls overcoming a turbulent childhood with crystalline precision, and appears as unafraid as she’s ever been of being seen as imperfect. Winfrey reflects on her growing interest in mental health, and on her past challenges in relating to the guests whose stories she’d worked to illuminate on TV. (What’s never explicitly stated but thrums throughout her scenes is that Winfrey’s rise demonstrates such a preternaturally iron will that she cannot consistently relate to others who pause to feel sorrow, even as she connects to them.) A young woman named Alex, whom Winfrey had featured on her talk show and attempted to mentor, is shown in an endless struggle with which Winfrey is less than optimally helpful. Alex, weeping after a video call in which Winfrey urges Alex to be strong and try hard, finds that Oprah-isms are not enough: She tells the camera “Sometimes, I feel like she just doesn’t get it.” The nation’s leading practitioner of empathy admitting that she had real learning to do about reaching others in need is striking, even as her ability to share her spotlight is nothing new.
Winfrey knows she has work to do when it comes to reaching others. The intriguing tension of her presence is that she, despite decades of talking people through their struggles, appears uncertain wading into the specificities of mental-health discourse — this is territory in which Harry, for instance, is significantly better-versed. Harry appears genuinely interested in the ways in which his own experience can help others, both in the application of specifics as well as in the general boosting of the idea of speaking openly and seeking therapy. That’s a worthy goal. But for all that he is better-equipped to touch on the issues of the day, one leaves episodes of “The Me You Can’t See” with a sense of rootlessness. So many people plumbed so much of their personal experience for a project that is organized in large part around a description of pain that is real and justified, whose reality and justifications we must live through again. “If I can use any part of my own experience that might assist or help other people who have similar issues, similar traumas…” Harry tells Winfrey at one point, trailing off. Winfrey agrees: “I’ve spent a career, a lifetime, a purpose doing that.”
This feels something like guidance: This is a first foray for a would-be media figure who, for all his positive qualities, does not yet seem to be defined by clarity of purpose. Harry, like his wife, seems to aspire to be a sort of public healer in the ways Winfrey has done for so long. But Winfrey’s purpose has been in transforming trauma — for all the foibles she’s willing to share, she has made interpersonal exchange into a legitimate art. “The Me You Can’t See” pairs a conversationalist with, in Harry, a well-intentioned monologist. A project that attempts to range widely over a cross-section of our troubled world ends up returning to a similar place time and again. The result, often, is overwhelming in the wrong way.
“The Me You Can’t See” premieres Friday, May 21 on Apple TV Plus.