The appeal of TV documentaries about cults isn't a a difficult equation to crack. The fascination of discovering a subculture that was hiding in plain sight, the rubbernecking appeal of the wild tales from inside the organization, the smug feeling of satisfaction that you would never be taken in by such an obvious scam — it's all there. And at the center is usually a dubiously charismatic figure of such peculiarity, it's a wonder they were ever able to amass such a following. HBO Max's The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin has designs on being your next cult doc obsession, and at its center is Gwen Shamblin herself, one of those people who must be seen to be believed. Festooned in tacky apparel and sporting a logic-defying hairstyle that, were she on RuPaul's Drag Race, you'd assume she was about to deliver a triple wig reveal in her lip-sync, Shamblin has all the aesthetic horror of Joe Exotic from Netflix's Tiger King (not a cult doc, but definitely on The Way Down's inspo wall) and all the self-serving philosophies and lust for power of Keith Ranerie from The Vow (another obvious influence).
Even before she started a cult that intertwined weight loss and radical interpretations of Christian theology, Gwen Shamblin would've been a fascinating figure to unpack. As is described in the documentary by the many people who crossed paths with her — including former cult members, disgruntled family members of cult members, and various people who've investigated her over the years — she grew up in the repressive Church of Christ, a denomination that didn't even allow women to speak during church services. You don't need a psychology degree to draw the line between that upbringing and her eventual determination to create a church in her own image. Shamblin's degree was in food and nutrition, and she became a dietician and weight loss consultant. This eventually led her to create the Weigh Down Workshop, a weight-loss program that claimed to produce results while letting participants eat whatever they wanted. The specifics of the program — which appeared to combine relatively stable concepts like portion control with more abstract notions like listening for your stomach to groan — are less fascinating than the way Shamblin interwove her weight-loss theories with Christian teachings, as she preached a prosperity gospel of thinness at all costs; thinness that proved you were worthy of God's bounty. And it was her success in the weight-loss field led to her eventually founding Remnant Fellowship Church in her home state of Tennessee in 1999.
One of the more thought-provoking aspects of The Way Down — even if it's not given a ton of time to develop — is why a weight loss program would make such fertile ground for a cult. Investigations into cults like Scientology and NXIVM show cults that prey on their members' insecurities over their careers and/or their romantic lives. Gwen Shamblin targeted an even more universal concern, one that cuts to the core of people's insecurities and can obliterate their self-esteem. The continuing dominance of the weight loss industry in this country is testament enough to the fact that people are willing to hand over lots of money for the promise of losing weight, and when you combine that racket with a patina of organized religion that only confirms what you already suspect — that being overweight is sinful and getting thin will earn you God's favor — the results are quite insidious.
The problem with The Way Down is, ironically, one of proportion. There is a deep well to be plumbed from the unholy alliance of weight loss programs and Christianity — and with Shamblin captured saying insane things like "people in prison camps ate less food, and they lost weight," there's plenty of material — but there is more to the horror of Gwen Shamblin's story than merely that. Remnant Fellowship Church kept its members suppressed in horrific cycles of abuse, as cults tend to do. This meant wives forbidden from divorcing abusive husbands and parents encouraged to corporally discipline their kids. That this all led up to the murder of a child by his parents, active Fellowship members, doesn't arise until the end of the second of three episodes (two more will air in 2022), part of a story structure that really hampers the show's effectiveness.
The Way Down finds itself in thrall of what seems to be the new standard in documentary TV, as evidenced by limited series like Tiger King, The Vow, and Wild Wild Country. which seems to require that the shows unfold like an onion, revealing layers as they go and shocking the audience with just how sordid things get. To that end, each episode must end with a blockbuster, often out-of-left-field revelation that makes the viewer realize there is way more to this story than we were expecting. The problem that arises in The Way Down is that these hours stretch and tread water, biding time until those last five minutes when the next game-changer is revealed. Director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) can't seem to find a way to elegantly move through these late-episode reveals, and the result is a documentary series that alternatingly lurches and stalls out. The second episode spends what feels like an eternity on Gwen's children, a relatively fruitless detour given that we haven't even gotten to the part about MURDERS more than halfway through the series.
What The Way Down lacks in effective structure it makes up for in part with some compelling and passionate interview subjects. The wounds of Remnant are still very raw for many, especially for those who got out of the church. Particularly riveting are the interviews with the survivors of Remnant-encouraged abusive parenting, the parents of a daughter who married into the cult, and the mother of Shamblin's second-husband's daughter, who was locked in a court battle with them and subject to harassment from the church. Additionally, as with The Vow, there is a trove of archival video of Gwen proselytizing Weigh Down over the years, sporting some real '80s hair and hawking her weight loss cures to a damnably credulous media apparatus who appeared, from what we see, content to let Gwen sell her snake oil. This is another angle that would be fascinating to explore, if Zenovich were so inclined (she's not).
One thing that deserves to be mentioned, however obliquely, is that critics have been asked not to reveal major plot details, a rather frequent if no less puzzling request when it comes to documentaries about widely available public stories. Wikipedia exists. Gwen Shamblin has her own page. In the interests of protecting the naive and uncurious, I'll simply say that the bookends to these three episodes offer a tragic twist to the story of Fellowship Church. And yet still, The Way Down's insistence on ending each episode with a cliffhanger of intrigue continues to kneecap the story being told. Vague editing choices are frustratingly puzzling. Should we be inferring some salient accusation from an ominous edit, or is this the show just trying to set a mood because it doesn't know how to end?
Ultimately The Way Down's adherence to these irksome new documentary customs makes the unfolding of its episodes more of a chore than they should be and robs a story that is equal parts dishy and tragic of the kinetic energy that could have made it really crackle. Gwen Shamblin certainly doesn't deserve better, but it's surprising that HBO Max couldn't get more out of its would-be Tiger Queen.
The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin drops its first three episodes on HBO Max September 30th. The series' final two episodes are expected sometime in 2022.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The Way Down, HBO Max, Gwen Shamblin Lara