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Hein’s Picks: Spellbound by TV's Dueling NXIVM Docs

Plus: This Is Us, The Mandalorian and Roadkill.
  • From left to right: Nancy Salzman, Keith Raniere and Allison Mack in The Vow. (Photos: HBO)
    From left to right: Nancy Salzman, Keith Raniere and Allison Mack in The Vow. (Photos: HBO)

    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.

    My TV screen has spent way too much time in Albany this year.

    The daily briefings from Governor Andrew Cuomo have been replaced by NXIVM documentaries. The home base for this now infamous E.S.P. organization was Albany, New York.

    The last two months have brought two multi-part documentaries on NXIVM — HBO’s The Vow and Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult on Starz. People get drawn in hearing "sex cult" and knowing celebrities and wealthy people are involved, but what ends up making these shows work so well is the archival footage. The talking heads are interesting and the plot is compelling, but our current world of cameras everywhere is the ingredient that brings these docs over the top.

    I remember reading about the arrests in The New York Times and the tabloid focus on the alleged sex cult, but NXIVM was so much more than that. These documentaries open your eyes to how people, seemingly reasonably intelligent ones, strive for self-improvement at any cost. The investment is worth it if you create a better you.

    Mark Vicente, one of the whistleblowers, is a filmmaker and former high ranking NXIVM official who was constantly shooting and preserved all of his footage. Watching him going from devoted disciple to angry activist is a fascinating journey.

    Likewise, watching NXIVM heads Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman do their thing is truly captivating. I can see why their followers got caught up in the cause and wanted to believe. Their motivation was sincere, and they couldn't see what was right in front of them. The branding and sex slaves take things to an entirely different level.

    It's easy to hear these stories and think "What were these people thinking," but seeing the actual footage takes you inside a place you wouldn't want your worst enemy to become a part of.

    The Vow (HBO)

    This nine-part docuseries is a slow build that does a good job introducing the world of NXIVM. Leading the way are actress Sarah Edmonson and filmmaker Mark Vincente, two high-ranking people within the organization who struggle as they help take it down.

    If you're looking for exploitation of a sex cult, you're in the wrong place. That doesn't even come up until you're three episodes in. Leader Keith Raniere a.k.a. Vanguard is the bad guy, but he gets plenty of help along the way. His cohort Nancy Salzman a.k.a. Prefect is a master manipulator, shaping the malleable minds of paying customers in pursuit of "bettering themselves."

    There are a slew of showbiz industry names who get sucked in and don't hesitate to recruit their friends, including Catherine Oxenberg and her daughter India, who end up being instrumental in taking down NXIVM. Watching this struggle firsthand through a mother's eyes is painful.

    Things really hit home in The Vow when Mark Vicente passionately explains "We didn't join a cult. Nobody joins a cult." He's right – they believed they were signing up for a good thing. Vanguard and Prefect had the worst intentions operating under the guise of a smart, helpful learning center.

    We have Vicente and other anonymous sources to thank for all the footage that makes the documentary work so well. As great as a story might be, re-enactments or artistic voiceovers are nowhere near as effective as seeing the real thing happen before your eyes. Very scary… and very worth the watch.

    Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult (STARZ)

    This four-parter could be subtitled “Keeping Up with The Oxenbergs” as Catherine’s daughter India details her involvement in NXIVM. India rarely speaks in The Vow, but she, her mother and the royal Oxenberg family are all over this project.

    Seduced gives us a first-person look at how NXIVM indoctrinated its victims. We feel the pain of Catherine Oxenberg's guilt for introducing her daughter to this evil world and her realization that she is losing her child.

    This doc spends a lot more time on the alleged sexual abuse and master/slave relationships that India was a part of. Her indoctrination into NXIVM was so deep that you gain an understanding of why she couldn't just say no. There were bad, manipulative people doing awful things to these women, and their followers were along for the ride no matter the cost.

    India explains herself clearly, and there's plenty of actual footage to illustrate what she went through as she progressed through the cult. Seduced is not as thorough as The Vow, but the pain caused by Keith Raniere and crew to the Oxenberg family (and countless others) is on display for all of us to see.


    This Is Us (NBC)
    Tuesday, October 27th 8:00 PM (Season 5 Premiere)

    The Pearsons return in this NBC two-hour mini-event to kick off its fifth season. The big three are turning 40, and there are issues abound in the extended family.

    The creators are wise to bring the three siblings back together at the start of this season. One of the most frustrating things about This Is Us is that the core Pearson family isn't together as much as it needs to be. The brothers continue to battle and tears are flowing as they always do.

    After four seasons, nothing really comes as a surprise on This Is Us anymore. But when it's right, it hits home like few other contemporary network TV dramas. Make sure you have those tissues nearby.

    The Mandalorian (DISNEY+)
    Friday, October 30th (Season 2 Premiere)

    Baby Yoda is back. The first season of The Mandalorian was one of my favorite shows last year and clearly the best thing Disney+ has to offer.

    "Oh no, not another Star Wars knockoff" expectations from year one were more than exceeded by Jon Favreau and crew. The story was excellent, the effects were top notch, and a new intriguing chapter was born. This is so much better than any of the last three Star Wars films.

    This time around, expectations are sky high. Mando has Baby Yoda in hand for season two, but anytime Giancarlo Esposito is playing the bad guy, you better beware. Moff Gideon has the darksaber, and he's not afraid to use it. I can’t wait to return to that galaxy far, far away.

    Roadkill (PBS)
    Sunday, November 1st (Series Premiere)

    Hugh Laurie returns to the other side of the pond in this four-part political thriller. This is under the Masterpiece banner, so expect some quality television.

    When I first saw Hugh Laurie in House, I had forgotten all about Blackadder and his native tongue. As Tom James on Veep, he played a different type of charming politician battling Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the fictional presidency.

    This time Hugh plays conservative Transportation Minister Peter Laurence whose life is anything but that. After slightly bending the truth to escape a case of corruption, the world pries into his closet full of skeletons that could destroy his family and career.

    There's nothing better on a Sunday night than a good British scandal featuring some excellent acting.

    If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.

    Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.

    Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.

    TOPICS: The Vow, Roadkill, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, This Is Us