Review: "A User’s Guide to Cheating Death"

Note: The first episode, “Detox”, was made available for review.

While Tim Caulfield is a fantastic author, you can’t read one of his books and see him perform “Sexy Cat with a Twist”. That’s where the television series A User’s Guide to Cheating Death comes to the rescue.

The goal of the series is to explore the popular and controversial procedures which, we are told, will improve our health, reverse aging, and stave off death. Tim Caulfield serves as our guide, narrator, and guinea pig.

The beauty of Caulfield’s written tomes was always that he combined the personal experience and the science exposé in a well balanced concoction. The TV show brings this to life with beautiful cinematography, a subtly crafted musical score, and elegant title cards.

The “Sexy Cat with a Twist” is a yoga pose that is supposed to expose your toxins. The first episode explores the myth of detoxification and the varied ways in which healers claim those dastardly poisons can be removed from the human body. There’s the ionic foot bath, with its oxygen-reacting iron electrode that creates rust to give the illusion of shed toxins; there’s the infrared sauna, which an employee claims allows “the body [to] heal itself naturally”; and who can forget Gwyneth Paltrow’s steamed vagina? Special guest Jennifer Gunter, MD, reminds the audience that this lady part is meant to be low in oxygen. Steaming it introduces more oxygen, which is not a good thing. The vagina is a self-cleaning oven, she says. Dr. Gunter worries that accepting this kind of nonsense leads to an erosion of science.

Tim Caulfield is an excellent host for a show that shines a disinfecting light on medical pseudoscience. Unlike many skeptics in the public eye, he does not come across as antagonistic or condescending. I do not mean to imply that skeptics are those things but that, too often (and much to my chagrin), this is the impression given to the public. Caulfield is honest, curious, and willing, and his open demeanour and non-threatening approach allow believers to confide in him, and the show is richer for it. Only his narration in the voice-overs often lacks the same energy he displays on camera.

We need science superstars to drown out the scientifically illiterate celebrity masses. As Caulfield points out early on, we seem to be living in a world where science conflates with pop culture. A show like A User’s Guide to Cheating Death—so rare in our landscape of ideological documentaries and hyperbolic science shows—manages to merge accurate science with lavish production values. Appealing in its content and elegant in its presentation, the show itself deserves to cheat death. 

Declaration of conflict of interest: Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, appears as a guest in this episode, and he is my boss. Can I get points for transparency?

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A User’s Guide to Cheating Death airs Mondays at 9 p.m. EST on VisionTV. 

In Canada, it can be found on Rogers channel 60, Bell channel 1161, Bell Fibe 1213 or check your local listings.