The briefings on my TV screen from Governor Andrew Cuomo have been replaced by NXIVM documentaries.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.
There are two multi-part documentaries on NXIVM right now - The Vow and Seduced. People get drawn in hearing "sex cult" and knowing celebrities and wealthy people are involved, but what actually makes these 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 puts 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 one, strive for self improvement at any cost. The investment is worth it if you create a better you – and you become blind to the cause.
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 tale.
Watching Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman do their thing is truly captivating. I can see why all of the 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 takes things to an entirely different level.
It's easy to watch both of these series and ask "What were these people thinking?" Well that's easy to do from our side of the couch. 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 documentary is a slow build that does a good job indoctrinating you into 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 showbiz industry names who get sucked in and don't hesitate to recruit their friends. This includes 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 India details her personal involvement in NXIVM. India rarely speaks in The Vow, but she, her mother and the royal Oxenberg family are all over this special.
Seduced gives you a first-person look at how NXIVM sucks you in. You feel the pain of Catherine Oxenberg's guilt introducing her daughter to this evil world and her realization that she is losing her daughter.
This doc spends a lot more time on the alleged sexual abuse and the 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 they 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 alleged 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 witness.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
This Is Us (NBC) Tuesday, October 27th 8pm (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 we all know 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 the 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, and you better 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 great, and a new intriguing chapter was born. This is so much better than 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. Jon Favreau has always risen to the challenge in this genre, and I look forward to returning to that far, far away galaxy.
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 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.
The brilliant actor 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.
I've always been in awe of any entertainer who becomes identifiable by a single name.
Howard. Oprah. Dave.
These talk show hosts didn't start out with the single moniker like Cher or Madonna – they earned it.
Howard is still the best at what he does. Oprah is busy running an empire. But a funny thing happened on Dave's exit from late night network television. Most thought he would ride off in to the Montana sunset, rarely to be heard from again if at all, Johnny Carson-style.
By the time he retired in 2015, Dave seemed fed up with the cookie-cutter limits of a network TV talk show. Having to interview the star of the latest procedural crime drama some combination of the letters I, C and S in the title was tedious. After spending decades brightening our nights at 12:30 AM, and then 11:30 PM, it was time for our hero to move on.
He spent some quality time with his wife and son. He grew that Santa beard. He did some print interviews about the state of the country and late night television.
And then, two years into his retirement, he made a deal with Netflix to do the interview show he wanted to do. Focus on one guest who piques his interest and take a deep dive into what makes them tick.
David Letterman first came on my radar in the 1980's when I couldn't sleep and watched Late Night with David Letterman. It was silly, witty, irreverent, and anything but your typical talk show. Dave was charming as heck, and a welcome contrast to his hero in the coveted 11:30 time slot, Johnny Carson.
The battle to replace Johnny has been chronicled time and again. Jay Leno got the gig, and CBS got Letterman. The 11:30 start changed Dave and the show. 12:30 shows have a different vibe and personality. Following the local news, you need to play ball as a cash cow of the network. The anti-establishment guy became the establishment. But even as he stood out there in those double-breasted suits, Dave never lost the respect of his late night fans.
You could tell Dave had had it by the end of his run. He wasn't as locked into his guests until those last few weeks of the show. When the host is engaged, I'm engaged – the interview subject doesn't really matter.
Thankfully Dave found his calling on Netflix where he can do his own thing. The guests are fantastic. The interviews are fun and informative. I do miss Paul and the World's Most Dangerous Band, but I'll take what I can get, thankful that he hasn't ridden off into that Montana sunset just yet.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
The World Series (FOX) Tuesday, October 20th 8pm
The fall classic will take place in Arlington, Texas, and the home team Rangers won't be taking the field. The Major League Baseball bubble is fully in place, and as for the weather, well, winter is coming. This playoff run has actually been very exciting. Games were played every single day and the drama has been quite intense. The Tampa Bay Rays (conquerors of the Astros and Yankees) will face off against the Los Angeles Dodgers (who overcame a 3-1 deficit to the Atlanta Braves) for the world title.
Baseball is a slow sport to watch, but these teams have masterful pitching and timely hitting. Having a World Series also brings a slight sense of normalcy to a topsy turvy world.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (NETFLIX) Wednesday, October 21st (Season 3 Premiere)
Kim Kardashian West, Robert Downey Jr., Dave Chappelle and Lizzo sit in Dave's hot seat for the third season of his Netflix interview show.
Dave doesn't hold back on why he's fascinated with his guests, and the mutual admiration society is in play on each episode. His genuine curiosity about these celebrity lives shines through as if he's on a mission to learn as much as he can while he can.
I’m no Kardashian fan, but the opening episode with her shows Dave at his best. He seamlessly drifts from topic to topic making his guest look good with his self-effacing humor. CVS will never be the same again.
There are only four episodes this season (thanks, COVID), but in a break from tradition Netflix is releasing the entire season at once, rather than one episode at a time.
The Queen's Gambit (NETFLIX) Friday, October 23rd (Series Premiere)
A female orphan growing up in the 1950's succeeds in the world of chess. If that sounds like it's straight out of a book, it’s because it is. Scott Frank, who created Godless, is in charge and Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon.
Beth is a woman in the male-dominated world of chess who wants to be the best and topple the Russian champ. She is also addicted to pills and alcohol and walking that fine line between genius and insanity.
Exploring genius is always a worthy endeavor. Mix in some addiction problems with the need to be steps ahead of your competition, and you've got a moody drama to dig in to. Your move.
The Undoing (HBO) Sunday, October 25th 9:00 PM ET (Series Premiere)
David E. Kelley. Nicole Kidman. A murder at a fancy private school. Sunday night on HBO. Haven't I seen this before? Where's Reese?
The Undoing is not Big Little Lies. The Night Manager director Susanne Bier makes winter in New York look awfully creepy. It's the perfect setting for Nicole Kidman to lose her mind over a murder.
Hugh Grant plays the accused as only Hugh can, and it's great to see Donald Sutherland as his father in law living quite comfortably in NYC. There's plenty of social commentary about race and class while figuring out whodunnit. This isn't Succession, so level your expectations.
Any David E. Kelley show is a crapshoot. It could be really good or it could be really bad. This one gets the Sunday night on HBO treatment, so we know it's going to be beautiful to look at. Still, the plot needs to be strong enough to keep me coming back.
If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.
There's no such thing as a sure thing. John Cusack proved that long ago.
But there are names in the entertainment industry who buck that trend. We all have them – a favorite actor, director or TV showrunner. Tom Hanks. Quentin Tarantino. Jack Kehoe (trust me).
I choose to focus on a different part of the entertainment industry – the writers. We fall in love with certain characters or shows and often attribute those feelings to the stars speaking the words. Awards shows are all about the actors. The writers are often overlooked.
Not by me.
Bankable TV writers are my sure things. Tell me they penned the series and I'm there, regardless of who is starring and whatever the premise might be.
David Simon. Damon Lindelof. Vince Gilligan. Those are just a few of my favorites.
And then there’s Aaron Sorkin – the surest of sure things. The man loves to write, as many of us do, but no one can write for the screen like he can. His credits are impressive not for their box office success and critical acclaim, but for the diversity in the subject matter he has taken on.
The written word is all he needs to get you going. His dialogue is heads above all others. The most mundane conversations become intriguing. Sure he's preachy and his soliloquies are a bit much at times, but when it's right, it's poetry.
Look at his film writing credits…
A Few Good Men Malice The American President Charlie Wilson's War The Social Network Moneyball Steve Jobs Molly's Game The Trial of the Chicago 7
I'm skipping his plays which include his most recent take on To Kill A Mockingbird. (Stay tuned Tony fans, I've got a Broadway pick for you to watch this week.)
Sorkin's four TV shows were hit and miss, but I'm glad I watched every one of them. Sports Night was ahead of its time, marrying his love of SportsCenter and behind the scenes TV drama. The West Wing was a game-changer. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip once again took us behind the scenes, but this time it was a sketch comedy show and it just happened to come out at the same time as 30 Rock. Bad timing, and not a great show. The Newsroom was well acted but got way too preachy leaving no one to root for.
Not all of these TV shows may be your cup of tea, but all of them have magical moments that only Aaron Sorkin can conjure up. He is THAT good. So if Aaron Sorkin is the guy who wrote the project, you bet I'll be there to watch and listen.
There are two Sorkin specials being served up on TV this week. Of course they'll be political with a strong liberal stance. But they'll also be the most entertaining things to watch all week.
It's a sure thing.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote (HBO MAX) Thursday, October 15th
They're back… and the timing couldn't be better.
The West Wing is a personal all-time favorite. It won every Emmy award of its kind and deserved each one. This fictional presidency would be welcomed in today's world.
Following up on the film The American President, Sorkin rose to the challenge of making everyday life in the White House compelling. It seems commonplace now to capture drama in the Oval Office, but The West Wing was something novel and completely different on the TV landscape during its time.
Martin Sheen got promoted from the movie's chief of staff to the commander in chief. A young Elizabeth Moss played his daughter, Zoey. Alison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe… the list of actors perfect for their parts is endless, making it feel like each of us were part of POTUS' staff.
This presentation will be a staged production of the “Hartsfield Landing” episode (s3 e14). Sterling K. Brown will step into the role of Leo for the late John Spencer. There are many "guest stars" to help get out the vote, and I'll take any excuse to see this magical group reunite.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (NETFLIX) Friday, October 16th
This feature film was made for the big screen, but COVID took care of that. Aaron Sorkin wears both hats as writer and director, and critics are already calling it an Oscar contender.
Sorkin originally wrote the script in 2007 and did many rewrites over the years. The cast is top notch with Eddie Redmayne playing Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman (he openly lobbied for the part).
The story is as timely now as it was back in 1969. We all know how Sorkin does when he tackles a courtroom drama. Enjoy this one from your couch, and see how you handle the truth.
American Utopia (HBO) Saturday, October 17th
I'm fortunate to have attended a good number of Broadway shows and musicals. The plays are gripping, but often long. Most musicals are cheesy (why are they singing everything?) and try way too hard.
American Utopia is an exception.
Stop Making Sense is my favorite concert film, so I was a little bit biased when watching David Byrne's latest offering on stage. The show is powerful and mesmerizing – so much more than a live concert.
I had the pleasure of meeting David Byrne after the show, and he could not have been more pleasant. He just put on this huge show and took the time to converse with me when I know he just wanted to go home. Class act.
Spike Lee captures the stage performance and tries to create that fascinating theater experience. It's a good reminder of what Broadway can do. Let's hope we get to check it out live again soon.
If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.
Not a lot of great new stuff this week, so let's catch up with what has been popping up recently on my screen...
At Home With The Heins
Every night around 8 o’clock or so, my wife Debbie and I settle in for a night of television. Yes, this includes cell phone glances and an occasional landline conversation with friends and family, but for the most part this is our undisturbed time together. Quality time.
Our first challenge – finding a show we’re both interested in. We each have distinctive tastes but manage to find some overlap on programs that we both like. Don't think for a minute that my television expertise carries any weight in the room – in fact it puts more pressure on me. "You're the expert, why can't you find something for us to watch together?" That's a fair and challenging question.
We've enjoyed shows like The Good Wife (Deb's recommendation), The Split (that was mine), Normal People (my pick too) and most recently, Virgin River (yes, Virgin River). Deb puts up with my prestige TV and sports, and I tolerate Chris Cuomo. Marriage is compromise after all.
Finding a show that hits the sweet spot is a tricky thing, but when it happens, it's pretty special. As we anxiously await the second season of Virgin River, here are a couple of shows that we've recently watched.
Love Fraud (SHOWTIME)
This saga of Richard Scott Smith seemed right up our alley. A documentary from notable filmmakers about a guy who has taken advantage of countless women who bond together to catch this scumbag.
The story at the heart of this four-part series is compelling, but the execution doesn't do it justice. As the creators try to build drama and illustrate how long it takes to nail a snake like this, the series drags on and on. The "artful animation" feels like filler as we wait to meet the next wife or girlfriend who got conned.
It's very moving when we hear from the ladies involved and their circumstances, and bounty hunter Carla should have her own series. There's excessive technique and too many pregnant pauses to supplement all four episodes. One less ep and tighter storytelling would have done Love Fraud some good.
This was going to be a tough sell. Debbie is not a sci-fi gal, but if the story is there she'll stick around. The Martian worked, and this is about a trip to Mars, so why not give it a shot? Plus Jason Katims, the mind behind two of our favorites Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, is in the mix.
Space exploration is not what drives this excellent ten-part series. The heart of the show is personal and professional relationships. Mission Control, the capsule, back at home – it's easy to get caught up in all that's happening here. The visual effects are up to par with most feature films – we still can't figure out how they did all that floating.
Hillary Swank and Josh Charles lead the way with some top notch acting. Astronaut casting makes a point of hitting all demographics, but their stories are anything but cliched. I was most moved by Lu's struggles at home and out in space, but everyone in orbit deals with some major issues.
Away proves that it doesn't matter where the location is – if characters ring true and their stories are gripping, you really can go anywhere.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
The Vice Presidential Debate Wednesday, October 7th 9pm
Talk about having a tough act to follow...
After last week's disastrous and embarrassing Presidential debate, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris step into the ring and attempt to persuade the nation on who to vote for.
Presidential debates have been a farce for a while now – all bluster and no substance. There's no respect for the candidates, the moderator or the television audience. I'm an apolitical TV guy, and arguing typically makes for some powerful television. But I don't want to see the potential leader of our nation acting like a Real Housewife.
Pence and Harris should have a more civil discussion of the issues that plague our country. After last week, there's nowhere to go but up.
The Right Stuff (DISNEY+) Friday, October 9th
My first question - why? I read the Tom Wolfe book. I enjoyed the somewhat bloated 1983 film with the perfect casting of Ed Harris as John Glenn and Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager. The drama surrounding the Mercury 7 is arguably the best known and most often told NASA tale.
Well Leo Dicaprio felt compelled to produce this eight-part series for Nat Geo, and Disney+ made it an original program to hang its hat on. The angle this time around is how the astronauts lives became the first "reality show" in America. The public really wanted to get to know these pilots and their families in the 1960's.
This incredible achievement takes us back to Cold War days when space exploration quickly escalated from being a dream to reality. The story is captivating, but the bar has been set pretty high for another dramatic re-telling.
I'm curious to see which parts of the book get left on the cutting room floor. In the meantime, I'll keep my feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars while watching from my couch.
If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.