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Cheeky Docuseries How to Become a Cult Leader Toes the Line of Tastelessness

A weepy paean to "honoring the victims" this is not.
  • Jaime Gomez in How to Become a Cult Leader (Photo: Netflix)
    Jaime Gomez in How to Become a Cult Leader (Photo: Netflix)

    How to Become a Cult Leader is the documentary equivalent of a Charles Manson T-shirt, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The larger vibe shift away from the earnest sensitivity of the 2010s into something coarser and less inhibited is reflected in the sarcastic tone of this series: True to its title, How to Become a Cult Leader gives “aspiring cult leaders” — of whom you, the viewer, is presumed to be one — tips on how to gain, consolidate, and maintain control over a flock of devoted sheep. In six half-hour episodes, you’ll learn how to “harness human vulnerability and make it work for you” through tactics like “personalize your pitch,” “build your Eden,” and “give ‘em a show.” A weepy paean to “honoring the victims” this is not.

    These tips are woven into a vaguely linear narrative based on the biographies of six famous cult leaders, each representing a different stepping stone to power. Manson shows viewers how to “build your foundation,” while Jim Jones of Jonestown fame teaches us to “grow your flock.” Yoga charlatan Jaime Gomez provides a lesson in “reform[ing] their minds,” and Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite instructs viewers in the art of “promis[ing] eternity.” Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara, meanwhile, demonstrates “control[ling] your image.”

    Each of these men’s groups came to disgraceful and/or violent ends, and we’re meant to learn from their mistakes. The sixth and final episode profiles Unification Church founder and self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, who managed not only to stay out of jail but to keep his church going after his death and into the present day. (Rev. Moon died in 2012, at the age of 92.) This, the show posits, makes him the most successful cult leader out of all of them. His lesson? “Become Immortal.”

    How to Become a Cult Leader has a certain contempt for Manson and Jones, whose techniques, to put it crudely, were sloppy. Those stories are burned off first, building to detailed explanations of brainwashing and other insidious forms of control in later episodes. This narrative arc illuminates why people stay in cults, as well as how their leaders operate: Vulnerability gives way to conformity, which gives way to paranoia. The show argues — with a wink, of course — that these techniques are even more dangerous than overt violence.

    The docuseries manages to find at least one former member of every cult profiled in the series (except for Aum Shinrikyo — a survivor of the group's 1995 sarin gas attack stands in there) who’s willing to be interviewed on camera. Their stories vary in tone: Some, like the former Heaven's Gate member, still believe. But their testimony consistency layers poignancy on top of the sarcasm, bringing a personal element to what’s otherwise an exercise in ironic detachment. Everything they’re talking about is very real indeed to the people who lived it.

    These first-hand accounts are the oil to the voiceover’s water. The narration, from executive producer Peter Dinklage, really plays up the snarkiness; brainwashing is sarcastically reframed as “a sturdy education,” and Dinklage uses his disappointed-dad voice when he says that the Jonestown massacre gave “cult leaders everywhere a bad name.” Some of these asides are funny. Others are tedious. A few toe the line of tastelessness — a combination that describes this entire project, really.

    Visually, a cheeky blend of stock footage, clips from B-movies, and real documentary footage further blur the lines between sassy contrivance and bummer reality. Meanwhile, the animated sequences that dot the narrative don’t realize their potential until Episode 4: In cartoon form, the members of Heaven’s Gate can unzip their human skins to reveal the aliens underneath — something they longed to do, but never could, in real life.

    Each episode is written to a formula, which means it gets repetitive if you’re consuming the three-hour series all in one go. There’s even a space allotted for diversions into fun facts about cult leaders not covered in the show — like Rajneesh, the subject of the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country. With all of these narrative and visual elements, perhaps it’s inevitable that How to Become a Cult Leader struggles to maintain its focus.

    In terms of content, if you’re already familiar with the exploits (and downfalls) of these six cults, the arcs of each episode will be familiar. If not, get ready for a wild ride. For the already initiated, the interesting stuff is in the colorful details: The giant microwave Aum members used to incinerate dissenters. The plants “coughing up” chicken livers and gizzards to “prove” Jones’ power as a faith healer. If those images make you lean in and say “tell me more” rather than shiver in horror, don’t be ashamed. You’re among friends here.

    How to Become a Cult Leader premieres Friday, July 28 at 3:01 AM ET on Netflix.

    Katie Rife is a freelance writer and film critic based in Chicago. 

    TOPICS: How to Become a Cult Leader

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