On Monday, HBO’s The Vow, Season 2, premiered.
Paul Serran will cover the docuseries directed by Karim Amer and Jihane Noujaim. Serran plans to cover it in depth.
I will provide behind-the-scenes observations of the people who put the series together and the people they filmed. There are many fascinating inside stories.
Karim, and his wife, Jihane, worked on Season 2 for over three years.
I have heard rumors from people trying to downplay the role Karim had in the production and direction of the Vow Season 2. These rumors are untrue.
Karim was the lead director, conducted interviews, arranged access to various people who appeared, and was the final decision-maker on every inch of the production. The Vow Season 2 is the work of Karim more than anyone.
Other than myself, Karim was the only person to secure an interview with Raniere before his sentencing, which he filmed for the Vow Season 2. So those who think Karim’s role was negligible are misguided.
In a later post, we will get into the behind-the-scenes, which NXIVM rabbit-holers alone love.
Karim Amir and Jehane Noujaim
By Paul Serran
The new season of HBO’s documentary show ‘The Vow’ has hit TV screens worldwide, promising to delve into deeper and darker secrets of the fire-branding sex cult NXIVM. But has it?
Reviews reveal a mixed critical reception for the series. While some hail it as ‘an acute psychological portrait,’ others find it “a perfect demonstration of how precisely NOT to cover an important story like this.”
Writing for CNN, Brian Lowry opines that while the series ‘gives viewers a front-row seat of the federal trial against founder Keith Raniere, it’s a more fragmented exercise that feels unduly stretched over six parts.’
Some aspects of the documentary seem controversial enough to Lowry, enough to make one physically sick.
‘A sense of queasiness also surrounds the interviews with those members who still profess their fealty to Raniere, conjuring alibis for his actions and Nxivm’s practice of leveraging collateral to exert dominance over its adherents.’
The structure also drew some criticism: the series ‘would have been better off devoting a couple episodes specifically to the trial and concluding with the verdicts […] before a protracted 90-minute finale that, post-trial, shifts to those still supporting their incarcerated leader, unwilling – or unable – to let go of the misguided sense of community Nxivm provided them.’
But the writer sees merits on the production, stating that ‘Warts and all, the totality of The Vow, including the earlier episodes, makes for fairly intoxicating viewing.
Joe Reid, writing for the Primetimer.com, notes that the directors could rely, this time, on a character ‘who was conspicuously absent the first time around: NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman.’
‘Salzman ends up being the most fascinating subject the show has encountered in two seasons; a woman who turned her back on Raniere after the federal charges came down — and who at the time of filming was being prosecuted herself — but still desperately wants to hold on to some sense of righteousness regarding the life’s work she put into NXIVM.’
Not all aspects of the series deserve the same praise from Reid, who writes that ‘the show’s attempts to document Keith Raniere’s villainy are once again marred by an overdetermined structure. For instance, crucial charges against him are saved for later episodes, which feels like pandering to an audience that’s hungry for shocking twists.’
The reviewer also believes that there is a bad ambivalence at play, here, stating that ‘[a] documentary shouldn’t make you work so hard to locate the moral and ethical ground upon which it stands’.
Variety sees it as a crisp and clean psychological portrait of NXIVM and its leader.‘The Vow, Part Two’ Is a Riveting NXIVM Legal Saga, and an Improvement on Season 1: TV Review
Daniel D’Addario, writing for Variety, has perhaps the greatest appreciation for the new installment of The Vow, writing that Part Two ‘has a tighter focus that benefits its storytelling.’
D’Addario finds that it is ‘crisper and cleaner than The Vow’s first iteration; as psychological portrait, little in the nonfiction space of late matches its acuity.’
‘In all, this series builds upon and improves upon the work the franchise had already done — and stands out, too.’
After praising the ‘compassion’ used to portray the people who still support Raniere and of NXIVM, the reviewer has a poignant point to make about the story: ‘The first tragedy of NXIVM — the first of many tragedies, perhaps — was in the harm it did to the women it scarred and starved and isolated from themselves. The next, harder story is of the women who recall it with fondness.’
Some believe the series is misguided, and this part 2 ‘unnecessary’.
Chase Hutchinson, from The Collider, had some tough perspective on the validity of the HBO series: ‘You’d be better off watching the far superior [Starz series] Seduced instead of this unnecessary extension of an already misguided docuseries.’
While she admits the Part 2 season’s execution is a bit more focused at brief moments, Hutchinson writes that ‘the experience of watching the six-episode The Vow, Part Two is all too familiar in how frequently off-target it feels. While sporadically gesturing at deeper ideas, it never makes a compelling case for its length or much of what it decides to focus on.’
This reviewer also notes that the series structure is problematic and distorted to provide shock value, stating that ‘it withheld context and key information for the purposes of luring audiences in, under the guise of editing in a manner that obscured the full picture of what was actually playing out in the cult.’
‘[T]he same approach of leaving much of the real horrors for the finale so that viewers will keep tuning in. Every single episode ends on a forced and artificial cliffhanger that eschews substance for a more showy sensibility.
One hard blow to the entertainment value of this series for knowledgeable viewers, like the readers of the Frank Report: ‘Almost everything that is revealed is what we’ve already known.’
‘Nowhere in this docuseries do we hear from any outside experts’, Hutchinson adds, ‘to even lightly push back on those like Salzman, who gets to make one dubious claim after another.’
And here we have the coup de grace: ‘It all ends up feeling like the series is toeing dangerously close to drinking the Kool-Aid being professed by many of those in NXIVM. At the very least, it gives subjects a huge audience, yet doesn’t ever approach robust journalism or incisive documentary filmmaking. It isn’t illuminating or informative, prioritizing superficial entertainment over anything else.’
Long and boring? Tightly focused? Pandering for shock? Intoxicating view? Morally ambivalent? An improvement on the franchise? Unnecessary and misguided? A stand out work?
The new HBO series about the multi-level marketing scheme turned sex-cult has failed to generate a predominantly good reaction from the critics. Maybe it’s only natural given the enormous amount of products about this same story. Maybe the series really ain’t that good. In the end, the audience is the one who gets to decide the fate of this documentary series.
How about you, what do you think about it?