Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
The Vow is back. The NXIVM saga that captured the nation returns for The Vow: Part Two tonight at 9pm ET on HBO. The location has shifted from upstate New York to a Brooklyn courtroom, but the fanatical devotion of detractors and supporters of Keith Raniere remains just as mind boggling.
The initial exploration of Keith Raniere's "self-help" group two years ago provided a first-hand super creepy look at a cult in action. Believing in this manipulative leader called Vanguard led to women starving and branding themselves as they willingly gave up "collateral" material to keep them in check. You can't make this stuff up.
The Vow focused primarily on a few members who were trying to break away from NXIVM and was a hit as the real-life story played out in the press. It's tempting to follow up on a documentary success to satisfy the audience's thirst. But if you're going to go back to the well, you need something new to drink.
Any examination of a cult, yes I'm calling NXIVM a cult, is gripping TV if you immerse yourself inside that world. Part one of The Vow did just that. How can these seemingly bright mostly well-to-do people subject themselves to this clear manipulation of their minds? NXIVM claimed to be helping people maximize their potential as many self-help programs do. Keith Raniere was a prophet, and many disciples were willing to follow (and pay) for different color sashes as they progressed through the program.
And let's not forget the abuse. Many followers were under Raniere's spell, and he took full advantage of the hold he had over women and it's why (spoiler alert) he's deservedly doing hard time.
But what about those who helped spread the word? That's where things really get interesting in The Vow: Part Two. Nancy Salzman, Rainere's more than willing right-hand who was referred to as Prefect, leads the charge of the implicated women trying to clear their names. Nancy was last seen working her hypnotic control as the face of all the training tapes. On the surface, her claim of innocence is a tough pill to swallow.
There's no excuse for what Vanguard was up to. If you choose to look away or pretend this isn't happening, that's your choice. When the accolades and money were pouring in, "Prefect" didn't have issues with the way things were being run. As we watch the trial date approach, the lieutenants that surrounded Raniere realize that they might want to save themselves. She has plenty of opportunity to state her case as the docuseries progresses.
The Vow: Part Two does a nice job presenting both sides of this story. The heroes of the original are back to see how things play out in court. Staunch defenders are profiled as they explain what was "really" going on at NXIVM and cite positive changes in their lives courtesy of Vanguard. The third and most powerful episode focuses on a member we saw in the original who had an affliction cured and is understandably thankful. But you can't pick and choose the NXIVM effect.
The challenge of this docuseries is the lack of action in the courtroom. Artist renderings are nowhere near as powerful as the individual interviews with NXIVM members. The story gets bogged down a bit recapping trial events while waiting for something to happen.
The Vow: Part Two lacks the storytelling of the original and the stories of members who realized their mistakes and risked everything to escape. It's intriguing to see those who still swear by the good Keith Raniere did for them. Or want to believe it.
There's a lot of power in manipulating minds. This follow-up illustrates the consequences, whether you're at the top or the bottom of the pyramid. It's worth the watch.
Here's what else is worth watching on TV this week…
Documentary Now! (IFC)
Wednesday, October 19th
After a COVID hiatus, the 53rd (really the 4th) season of this documentary spoof series returns with great actors who don't take themselves too seriously. My Octopus Teacher, When We Were Kings, and of course, a Werner Herzog film (Burden of Dreams) are ripe for the picking for the former SNL minds to parody.
Inside Amy Schumer (Paramount+)
Thursday, October 20th
It only took 6 years to get to the fifth season of the critically acclaimed series that helped put Amy on the map. This season is five stand-alone specials that will stream weekly with now recognizable faces who were always part of the show. Watch preview.
THIS WEEK'S STIHTGT!
(Shows That I Hope To Get To!)
American Horror Story: NYC (FX) – Manhattan is the place for the 11th season of Ryan Murphy's spooky series. Wednesday at 10p ET.
From Scratch (Netflix) – Zoe Saldana is a student studying abroad who falls for a Sicilian chef and brings him to LA. Friday.
The Peripheral (Prime Video) – The creators of Westworld take a shot at adapting a William Gibson novel about virtual reality. Friday.
(Really Good Shows You May Have Missed)
This Week's Pick: Fauda (Netflix) - An Israeli special forces agent gets drawn back in to the ongoing battle with Palestinians in this intense action thriller. Each episode is edge of your seat watching as every kind of emotion is exploited in this emotional drama.
Monty Python's Flying Circus (Netflix)
It's Garry Shandling's Show (Prime Video)
The Office (UK) (Hulu)
The Prisoner (Prime Video)
The Twilight Zone (Paramount+)
Black Mirror (Netflix)
The Leftovers (HBO Max)
Deadwood (HBO Max)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Mr. Show (HBO Max, Hulu)
Downton Abbey (Peacock)
Banshee (HBO Max)
Police Squad! (Prime Video)
Party Down (Starz)
The Great (Hulu)
Magic City (Peacock)
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Abbott Elementary (ABC)
Luther (HBO Max)
Downton Abbey (Netflix)
The Good Wife (Paramount+)
Freaks & Geeks (Hulu)
Patriot (Prime Video Prime Video)
Battlestar Galactica (Peacock)
The Split (Prime Video)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC+)
If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.
Get vaccinated and boosted. Stay healthy and safe!
Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.