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The Tale of Two Competing NXIVM Documentaries

Where HBO’s ‘The Vow’ dwells on cult leader Keith Raniere’s anodyne mask to heighten the shock of what lies beneath, Starz’s ‘Seduced’ sacrifices that shock for a sharper portrait of the monster within

HBO/Showtime/Ringer illustration

The first rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” By that standard, HBO’s The Vow should be a better story than Starz’s four-part special Seduced. Both focus on NXIVM, the cult-like self-help group whose founder, Keith Raniere, was just sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges ranging from racketeering to sex trafficking. The projects likewise have a similar core theme—that anyone, not just the uniquely credulous or vulnerable, could find themselves under the sway of a malignant narcissist.

Seduced makes this argument directly. “There is no way to help these victims or solve these problems unless you stop judging us,” its central figure, India Oxenberg, declares at a speaking engagement. “I hope that bringing faces to people who have been associated with words like ‘cult,’ ‘coercion,’ [and] ‘victim’ will bring this room”—and by implication, the viewer at home—“a better understanding rather than thinking, ‘This could never be me.’”

The Vow is more elliptical. The nine-hour season, now revealed to be the first of two, hinges on years’ worth of recordings compiled by documentarian Mark Vicente, a former member of NXIVM’s executive board who spent more than a decade in its ranks. With so much primary-source material on its hands, The Vow tries to communicate NXIVM’s appeal by recreating its hypnotic pull on Vicente, his wife Bonnie Piesse, their friend and fellow higher-up Sarah Edmondson, and her husband, Anthony “Nippy” Ames. Later on, Oxenberg’s mother Catherine, an actress best known as Amanda Carrington from Dynasty, joins the group in their extended campaign to bring Raniere to justice. The Vow is nonlinear in its structure, hopscotching between its subjects’ time in Raniere’s thrall and their eventual disillusionment.

Seduced and The Vow have oddly similar backstories. Both were made by filmmakers with a personal connection to the story: The Vow’s Jehane Noujaim, who codirected with her husband Karim Amer, had taken NXIVM classes herself; Seduced’s Cecilia Peck, working with editor Inbal Lessner, had been the target of an extended and unsuccessful recruitment effort. (Peck is the daughter of Gregory Peck, marking her as one of NXIVM’s most prized potential assets: children of the wealthy, famous, and/or powerful.) Both willingly cede much of their potential objectivity as a result. Noujaim freely describes Vicente in interviews as “my friend”; it was he who first referred her to an introductory class in L.A., which she took for a couple weeks without continuing any further. In Seduced, Oxenberg acts as both subject and host, reflecting her behind-the-scenes role as an executive producer. These are, respectively and unabashedly, Vicente and Oxenberg’s stories.

Yet Seduced navigates its minefields with much more skill and self-consciousness than The Vow. Noujaim and Amer’s “show, don’t tell” ethos is effective in simulating the confused, contradictory process of extricating yourself from a community you once called home. But that stylistic choice comes with trade-offs that ultimately aren’t worth the price, especially when held up against Seduced’s more straightforward approach. Peck has shied away from the idea of ranking the two documentaries, which join an already crowded universe of NXIVM nonfiction. (There’s also a CBC podcast featuring Edmondson and a Lifetime special emceed by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson.) But the back-to-back releases make the comparison inevitable. Premiering the very day of The Vow’s finale, Seduced reads almost like an intentional corrective to its immediate predecessor’s most glaring flaws.

A cult story has two competing prerogatives: demonstrating what makes a person or movement so compelling that their followers ignore obvious red flags, and explaining why the group was toxic in spite of its draw. The Vow goes all in on the former, flooding the viewer with footage from the more idyllic, or even just mundane, parts of Vicente’s time with NXIVM. In its style, The Vow is less verité than music video. Audio recordings are augmented with footage of Raniere walking endless loops around the Albany suburbs, or one of NXIVM’s bizarre late-night volleyball games, or abstract designs that look like ’90s screensavers. The title sequence, a montage of ocean walks set to Son Lux’s “Dream State,” could be a rejected intro for The O.C. Above all, there are extended, seemingly infinite clips of Raniere’s bland sermonizing.

All of The Vow’s testimonials come from the apostates themselves. That’s good for translating what NXIVM’s generic, jargon-laden philosophy actually means; it’s jarring to watch Edmondson seamlessly slip back into coach mode to explain that our emotions are completely under our control, a mindset that starts out empowering but quickly turns manipulative. Still, this approach struggles to put Raniere’s tactics in context, the scrambled chronology and heartfelt confessions eclipsing anything outside the subjects’ bubble. Seduced, by contrast, pairs Oxenberg’s personal story with added perspective from a litany of experts, including academic Janja Lalich, Cult Education Institute head Rick Alan Ross, and Oxenberg’s own therapist, Rachel Bernstein. Combined with Seduced’s simplified, much more legible timeline, these observers lay out a universal pattern of recruiting that NXIVM follows to a T: initial hook, intentional exhaustion, demands of devotion. Seduced may be less than half the length of The Vow, but it manages to squeeze in far more useful information.

Because Seduced is clearer on the when and how of NXIVM, it’s also better able to communicate the why. The Vow concentrates much of its most potent material into penultimate episode “The Wound,” loosely organized around the theme of misogyny and toxic masculinity. “The Wound” arrives at a strange juncture in The Vow’s master arc: just before the end, paced like a traditional reveal, but well after all the central figures have left the cult, a decision based in part on the information “The Wound” contains. In other words, The Vow obscures its characters’ central motivations in the name of surprise. Seduced, meanwhile, uses much of the same footage—Raniere screaming about fucking, Raniere preaching gender essentialism, Raniere claiming the callout of abuse is itself abuse—at a far earlier juncture. Where one series dwells on Raniere’s anodyne mask to heighten the shock of what lies beneath, the other sacrifices that shock for a sharper portrait of the monster within.

Some of that difference reflects the protagonists. A young woman who was coerced into letting Raniere take nude photographs of and perform oral sex on her, Oxenberg is much better positioned to attest to the horrors of DOS, the sorority within NXIVM that grabbed headlines for branding its “slaves” with a symbol of Raniere’s initials. Edmondson was a member of DOS and discusses it at length in The Vow, but the show’s uncontested center is Vicente, whose experience with the sexual abuse that made NXIVM toxic as opposed to truly creepy is indirect at best. The Vow is also strangely unwilling to interrogate Vicente’s complicity beyond his own lengthy soliloquies about guilt. Raniere and Vicente were once so close they shared pet names (“My Keithos!” “My Markos!”); Seduced includes footage of Vicente smirking to Raniere’s repugnant—and nonsensical—joke about negging women with the word “official” because it sounds like “fish hole.” But The Vow focuses on the version of Vicente who left NXIVM and wants to bring Raniere down, not the one who stayed by his side for a dozen years. Nor does it discuss Vicente’s previous experience with a group called the Ramtha School of Enlightenment or how it affects his view of NXIVM.

Vicente is an unreliable narrator, which Noujaim and Amer would surely argue is the point. But in The Vow’s final minutes, they introduce a voice that’s not just unreliable, but dangerous: that of Raniere himself, calling from jail in Brooklyn. It’s queasy enough to use a destructive psychopath as a teaser for an upcoming season of television, let alone contemplate Raniere being handed the kind of free rein to tell his side of the story Vicente was. The Vow already includes so much of Raniere’s substance-free speechifying it can feel almost irresponsible. When present-tense Raniere is the one holding the mic, The Vow threatens to lose its moral compass entirely.

With a story as vast as NXIVM, a group that spanned multiple decades, thousands of members, and several countries, no one documentary can capture every detail. Seduced, like The Vow, contains frustratingly little about Nancy Salzman, Raniere’s cofounder and consigliere. But Seduced also foregrounds victims’ experiences, and Raniere the abuser over Raniere the sage. Oxenberg, too, reckons with her survivor’s guilt, but to a licensed professional guiding her through the healing process, not a camera that’s constantly at hand.

One of the more absorbing aspects of the NXIVM story is how many of its key players are actors and artists. The ringleader of DOS was Allison Mack, a former child actress best known for her role in Smallville; at the time of Raniere’s arrest, he was at a villa in Mexico with Mack and Battlestar Galactica’s Nicki Clyne. This didn’t just make NXIVM fodder for tabloids—the members’ backgrounds in entertainment also meant they, and mainly Vicente, had the tools to document and frame their time on the inside. (It’s staggering how much of the group’s dissolution was caught on tape, as if already aimed at a future audience.) With its lyrical, feelings-over-facts sensibility, The Vow is undoubtedly a more artful work than Seduced. But when it comes to a cult whose evils are just becoming known to a wider audience, art is less important than instruction. Tell, don’t just show.