I usually like to spotlight top shows on streaming services or escapist fare, but this week I’m taking a look at a couple of darker, reality-based shows. HBO/HBO Max is currently shining a penetrating light on the notorious personal development movement-turned-sex cult NXVIM with the nine-part documentary series The Vow, illuminating the ways in which intelligent, capable people can be lured into following a corrupt leader.
Meanwhile, an entirely different cult–the cult of celebrity–is ripe for exploring on Netflix, thanks to its Emmy-winning 2016 FX series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. The 10-episode series remains fresh for first-time viewers and potent for those revisiting the epic tale of Simpson’s arrest and trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her acquaintance Ron Goldman.
First up, The Vow tackles the story of NXVIM in a surprising way, given the cult’s scandalous explosion on the national news front back in 2018. Relying primarily on the personal testimonies of members Mark Vicente, his wife, Bonnie Piesse, and his best friend and business partner, Sarah Edmondson, the series offers a stunning array of quality footage of the inner workings of NXVIM and its founder, Keith Raniere, because filmmaker Vicente was creating promotional videos for the organization.
Rather than taking a hot-button approach with an emphasis on shock value (and there’s plenty that’s shocking about this), directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim give the material room to breathe over the course of nine episodes. The sometimes-languid pace lulls viewers into a false sense of security, which is a brilliant way to handle things since early on, it makes them accept NXVIM’s positive self-esteem lessons like its subjects did, before pulling the rug out from under them.
There have been plenty of documentaries about cults and their allure, but The Vow is rare in the amount of insider video and audio it has to offer. It leads viewers through the process in which successful people (Vicente had directed the hit metaphysical documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?) were duped but managed to come out the other side. It’s not only a fascinating explanation of NXVIM but an invaluable resource that may help prevent future charlatans from succeeding.
The People v. O.J. Simpson made headlines of its own upon its debut four years ago, scoring huge ratings as well as 13 Emmy nominations and five wins, including Best Limited Series. Even at 10 hours, it was packed with crackling tension as it recounted the riveting effect the trial had on the nation.
It also offers a compelling look at how polarized Americans were over the case. Many Black Americans were rooting for O.J.’s acquittal as payback for the oppression they’d experienced for generations, while much of white America believed he was guilty and should go to prison. Then there were the emotional battles between the Black and white members of legal teams on both sides.
The miniseries’ most dynamic acting showdowns come between Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutor Christopher Darden, who both snagged Emmys for their work as the heated opponents. Sarah Paulson also won an Emmy for bringing a multidimensional mix of steeliness and frustration to her role as lead prosecutor Marcia Clark.
For my money, David Schwimmer as Simpson friend and attorney Robert Kardashian is just as compelling. And John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson remind viewers of their electrifying talent, a rare opportunity for them over the past decade or so.
Producer/director Ryan Murphy has been on a tear for the past several years with both American Horror Story and American Crime Story (which had a second edition in 2018 with The Assassination of Gianni Versace–also on Netflix–and premieres a third edition about the Clinton/Lewinsky impeachment scandal on Sept. 27 on FX). While Horror often makes for ghastly thrills that go far beyond the bounds of taste, Murphy deserves the highest praise for illuminating how fascinatingly flawed and all too human were the players on both sides of the Simpson trial.
I’m definitely setting my DVR for the “impeachment” edition on Sept. 27, and I urge you to as well.