Home Entertainment ‘Where Is Wendy Williams?’ Docuseries Is Unsettling and Exploitative: TV Review

‘Where Is Wendy Williams?’ Docuseries Is Unsettling and Exploitative: TV Review

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Less than 72 hours before the premiere of Lifetime‘s two-part docuseries “Where Is Wendy Williams?,” the former talk show host’s team announced that she has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the same disease that Bruce Willis has. Amid the news of Williams’ health crisis — which is immediately evident on the show— this docuseries feels invasive at best and predatory at worst. 

Where Is Wendy Williams?” is designed as a follow-up to her 2021 documentary “Wendy Williams: What A Mess,” which dove into Williams’ public divorce, apparent mental health crisis and other public mishaps. That same year, Williams also executive produced “Wendy Williams: The Movie,” a TV film starring Ciera Payton that chronicled the entertainment host’s personal life and career trajectory. What’s now clear is that “Where Is Wendy Williams?” is not a series about the next chapter of Williams’ life but instead an exploitative display of her cognitive decline and emotional well-being.

From the moment Williams appears on screen in Episode 1, “I’m Not a Crier,” it’s clear that something is very wrong. Fans have seen Williams struggle publicly with her health beginning in Oct. 2017, when she fainted on the set of “The Wendy Williams Show.” As “Where Is Wendy Williams?” opens, a lingerie-clad Williams stumbles barefoot into her filming room. Though she initially talks about being thrilled to put her talk show behind her and embark on a new podcasting venture, she’s barely able to answer the producers’ repetitive questions. Instead, she’s quickly reduced to tears regarding inquiries about her appearance, alcohol abuse and financial woes. The interview ends with the former broadcaster weeping into the arms of her manager, Will Shelby.

Much of the series, shot between August 2022 and April 2023, continues this way, with people speaking for and at Williams. Figures like Shelby, DJ Boof, publicist Shawn Zanotti and friend Regina Shell appear intent on filling in the gaps what happened with Williams following the end of her talk show, which has already been hashed out in the press for several years. Most disturbing is that some of these figures are clearly just trying to be seen with Williams in paparazzi shots or on camera.

Lifetime did not provide screeners for “Where Is Wendy Williams?,” which is executive produced by Williams — which perhaps she’s not capable of — and her son, Kevin Hunter Jr. Apparently the cable network wanted critics and the audience to tune in live, but the decision not to share episodes beforehand is no wonder, since the series is a jumbled mess of archival footage, interviews from those “closest” to Williams and incoherent and often combative rumblings from the former host herself.

The series’ most intriguing aspects are the interviews with Williams’ family, including her son, nephew Travis Finnie and niece Alex Finnie. Her son Hunter Jr. speaks about the love of his mother and the horror the family felt after Williams was taken from their care in Florida and placed under guardianship in New York. From what’s showcased, it appears that the tension Williams has with her family stems from her alcohol abuse and what Hunter Jr. labels as self-sabotage.

Episode 2, “I Really Want to Be Back on Television,” is much more structured than the opener and initially presents a portrait more reminiscent of the woman who has been in the limelight for three decades. A return to Williams’ hometown of Asbury Park, N.J., brings out a beautiful display of emotion from the media personality and gives her some face time with fans. Later, she even gives a buzzy take on Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s relationship after thumbing through a gossip magazine. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, Williams’ erratic behavior resurfaces.

It’s also critical to address how Williams is physically depicted in the docuseries. During her 14-season run on “The Wendy Williams Show,” the interviewer was known for her perfectly curled wigs, an array of brightly colored dresses, hoop earrings and bedazzled sneakers. Though scenes of Williams without her wig and signature makeup might appear to give audiences a “raw and unfiltered” portrait of the commentator, now that her diagnosis has been made public, one can’t help but wonder whether she truly wants these aspects of her private life on display. It’s also alarming that when Williams is given the mic, she is often seen thrusting out her middle fingers or belittling those around her.

While William’s cognitive deterioration is pronounced here, what’s most devastating about “Where Is Wendy Williams?” is the apparent loneliness that she feels. A forceful separation from her family, lack of funds and a platform appear to have only exasperated her issues. At the close of Part 1 of the two-night event, one thing has never been more certain: the cameras should have stopped rolling in Williams’ life the moment she left her show’s set for the last time.

“Where Is Wendy Williams?” airs Feb. 24 and 25 on Lifetime.