Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Documentaries about cults appeal to us for many of the same reasons we find any true-crime material compelling. Learning everything we can about an organization like Scientology gives us a feeling of power in knowledge, that we wouldn't fall for their sales pitches ourselves — just like reading up on serial killers might make us feel as though we could identify and avoid them out in the world. We may find the testimony of victims compelling and important to bear witness to. We might also want to understand how an organization becomes corrupted by its own power, or how law enforcement finds a way to attain justice for survivors.
The Vow, HBO's new nine-part docuseries on the NXIVM cult — a self-improvement group whose high-ranking members, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, have been charged with crimes including sex trafficking and racketeering — ticks all those boxes and more, joining the ranks of other must-see cult documentaries like Going Clear, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, Prophet's Prey, and The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
What is it about The Vow that puts it in this lofty list? Sure, it's partly the topic itself. NXIVM isn't just a multi-level marketing organization. it's also a clutch of secret societies, the kind that recruit new members not to resell vitamins but to service the founder, Keith Raniere, who's also alleged to have put his sex slaves on calorie counts, and solicited blackmail material from underlings in order to assure their loyalty. Additionally, several NXIVM adherents were recognizable actors, one of whom was indicted as Raniere's chief co-conspirator. There's also branding, and I don't mean the kind social-media influencers do. I mean ritual scarring. But Charles Manson and his grubby Family had a lot of the same grotesquely interesting elements, and 90 percent of the content churned out about that case is garbage, so why is The Vow one to put on your calendar?
It has solid pedigree. Co-directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim are the minds behind The Great Hack (about the Cambridge Analytica scandal) and Control Room (about Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war). The Great Hack specifically was years in the making, so it's no surprise that…
The Vow is smartly structured and extremely detailed. Nine episodes might seem like a slow burn, but the documentary has a good ear for its own rhythms; the end of the premiere episode, for instance, is carefully timed with a key interviewee's realization that NXIVM is not what it seems, but the cliffhanger doesn't feel cheap. Also, The Vow painstakingly lays the groundwork for understanding how top NXIVM-ers like Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson came into the organization; how they and others rose within it; and what soured their relationships with NXIVM, Raniere, and other co-conspirators. It's meticulous, but not slow, and all the information The Vow compiles along the way gives its revelations more power.
All that detail comes from impressive access. Vicente, Edmondson, and others give the filmmakers many hours of talking-head interviews, participate in re-enactments, provide recorded conversations (and confrontations), as well as context and inside information on the organization's power structure.
It's process-y but also compassionate towards its subjects. The subjects have enough self-awareness to roll their own eyes at some of the goofy lingo and childish ritual they accepted as normal — the system of sashes and stripes, for example, or Hubbardian argot like "the self-esteem module" or "overcoming your body feelings." The way cults and extremist sects rename things and shift their members' realities through language is a known quantity to many of us, and it can be easy to think less of someone for falling for, but The Vow's directors understand that that's how cults create community and then isolate their members, and the series lets us in on how that methodology succeeds without judging the victims.
It appeals to viewers who know a lot about the case as well as those who are only dimly aware of it. I think the extent of my knowledge about NXIVM prior to watching The Vow was something like "that sex cult the actress from Smallville got mixed up in," so the comprehensive set-up kept me hooked — but the insider intel, exclusive footage and audio, and repeated references to NXIVM's similarities to the ne plus ultra of this genre, Scientology, means The Vow will keep your undivided attention even if you've been following the case's headlines. Sad in places, infuriating in others, it's never boring or predictable, making its nine hours well worth the investment.
The Vow premieres on HBO Sunday August 23rd at 10:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.