When news broke in 2018 that a well-connected cult leader and a former Hollywood star were indicted for sex trafficking and multiple other felony charges, a docuseries was almost guaranteed. With the recent explosion of the true-crime genre, it was only a matter of time before NXIVM became the country’s next morbid obsession.
“The Vow” opens on a series of interviews with former NXIVM members. Actress Sarah Edmondson (“Geronimo Stilton”) and documentary filmmaker Mark Vincente (“What the Bleep Do We Know!?”) are featured heavily as narrators, slowly unraveling the story’s confusing and bureaucratic exposition. Before NXIVM was known worldwide as a hive of abuse and exploitation, it was a self-help seminar series.
Founded in 1998, NXIVM began as a vaguely science-based multi-level marketing scheme. Leaders Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman promoted the organization as a way to optimize a person’s potential by eliminating “limiting beliefs” that stand in the way of his or her success. Edmondson and Vincente recount the rapid growth of the semi-spiritual group from hotel ballroom Powerpoint presentations to a business conglomerate backed by the two heirs to the Seagram beverage fortune.
As the premiere unfolds, the average viewer might start to question why exactly a primetime HBO series has spent the last half hour talking about colored sashes and personal questionnaires. Slowly, a sense of unease creeps into each tearful interview as the audience wonders, “How did a self-esteem building method become a waking nightmare?” But “The Vow” offers no answers in its enigmatic debut.
If you didn’t know anything about NXIVM before watching this, you’d still have no idea what the point of “The Vow” is after the first episode. In fact, the show’s entire feeling of suspense relies on viewers already knowing the story that’s about to be told. Its foreshadowing is vague, almost nonexistent. But is that pacing problem an issue with “The Vow” or with its audience?
When a documentary premieres about events that occurred not even a few years prior, a certain amount of background is assumed. When a documentary premieres about events as heinous as the sexual abuse of NXIVM, a certain amount of morbid fascination is assumed. Often works of the true-crime genre cash in on disturbing content to keep audiences interested. HBO, however, has taken a subtler approach to capture attention.
Before it exposes each of Keith Raniere and NXIVM’s crimes, “The Vow” wants to show exactly how a seemingly innocent (and convoluted) self-help course became international news. In outlining every step of the organization’s creation and belief system, the documentary thus far avoids addressing the twisted horror story that dedicated true-crime fans already know and came to see.
It’s hard to make a judgement on “The Vow” because the show itself is saving its most powerful moments for the final episodes. The choice to bury the lede may have been in order to bait viewers into watching past episode one or to attempt to explain how exactly someone falls victim to a cult. Whatever the motivation, the story of NXIVM and its victims is waiting to be told, just as its audience is waiting to hear it.