Thursday, October 29, 2020

TV Picks - Week of October 26

I know way too much about Albany these days. 

The briefings on my TV screen from Governor Andrew Cuomo have been replaced by NXIVM documentaries.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 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. 

Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe.

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