Over my Christmas vacation I ate pie, watched Charles Bronson movies, and caught up with two of HBO’s most celebrated true crime documentaries from last year: The Vow and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
The Vow is a nine-episode series looking at the NXIVM (pronounced Nekseeum) sex cult — a self-help cult launched in 1998 by a man named Keith Raniere who was just sentenced to 120 years in prison.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a six-episode documentary about one woman’s hunt for the Golden State Killer — a murderer and rapist who went on a 13 year spree that ended in 1986. He wasn’t caught until 2018.
If you’re a true crime fan, those sound pretty interesting. They aren’t. Both are a waste of time, starting with the fact they’re twice as long as necessary.
My guess is that all the “acclaim” (The Vow sits at 78 percent fresh, while Gone in the Dark earned an even more laughable 96 percent) is almost certainly a result of the fact both are directed by women. If there’s anything we’re learning in the Woke Era, it’s that critics are grading protected groups on a very steep curve (see: 1984, Wonder Woman).
What really kills both, though, is how the toxicity of celebrity is allowed to intrude on what could have been as compelling as Tiger King (a fascinating look at a subculture few knew existed) or The Ripper (a solid look at the investigation into a decades-old murder spree).
The amount of footage available from inside NXIVM is a true treasure trove and about what you’d expect from a megalomaniac like Raniere, who considered everything he said to be a pearl worth saving for posterity. Instead of focusing on that, The Vow devolves into a D-list celebrity reality show as five former cult-members (all with show-biz ties, naturally) try to bring Raniere down.
We spend nine tedious episodes with Sarah Edmondson (a sometimes actress), her husband Nippy, Mark Vicente (a documentary filmmaker), his wife Bonnie Piesse (who had a small role in a couple Star Wars prequels), and former Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg. All were deeply involved in NXIVM, not only as members but as trainers and/or recruiters (Oxenberg brought her own daughter in).
Vicente is why there’s so much footage. As the cult’s chief propagandist, he not only recorded much of the footage (including footage of him recording footage), he apparently took off with it. And the footage is amazing. Watching Raniere at work is fascinating, as is the glimpse inside a bubbled subculture that includes middle of the night walk and talks, and all-night volleyball games (sleep-deprivation is key to brainwashing).
Also extraordinary are some of the moments captured, such as Allison Mack’s first encounter with Raniere. When you already know the Smallville star (who pleaded guilty to racketeering and awaits sentencing) will go on to be one of Raniere’s top enforcers and sex recruiters, you feel like a fly on the wall of true-crime history.
That’s all good stuff. Too bad The Vow didn’t stick with it. Instead, the documentary morphs into a D-list reality show that feels like its own kind of cult — a cult of narcissistic, me-me-me celebrity do-gooders doing good n’ stuff. We see them cry. We seem them argue. We see them worry and fret. We see them during their low moments, their high moments, their moments of self-doubt and triumph. We see them fight for what’s good and right. Oh, and the women always look great. Hair and makeup perfectly in place. No unflattering angles….
More than anything, though, we see the five of them rationalize their own culpability and then attempt to write themselves as heroes into their own story. Worst of all, no one challenges any of this because — just like a cult — no one from the outside is allowed in to offer any kind of perspective or argument.
After four or five hours of this insular, narrow, myopic point of view, you start to feel like you’re the one being indoctrinated just so that five self-absorbed people can ride their victim status into a level of HBO fame they never would have otherwise reached.
What’s really lacking in The Vow is the big question — Why?
Why would five intelligent, fairly successful people join a cult like NVIXM?
Why would Edmonson go so far as to allow herself to be branded — physically branded — in order to join DOS, which was basically Raniere’s harem?
This big question hangs over everything, and instead of answering it honestly, all we hear is garbage that makes it sound as though cults are like a virus. If you’re exposed, you’re doomed. No one is immune.
We all know the kind of people attracted to these self-help cults, a toxic mix of insecurity and narcissism. NXIVM was all about reassuring the fragile they were special and unique and only needed to become more self-absorbed to unlock their awesome potential.
At one point, Edmondson says, “And then all of a sudden, like, I could systematically evolve to be the ideal version of myself. To write my own character.” And there you go. But instead of confronting that, The Vow makes it sound as though that sort of self-involvement is perfectly okay until you find yourself branded.
And like most celebrity reality shows, it portrays this level of self-involvement as a virtue, even though it is exactly the kind of thing people like Raniere prey on.
As the series wore on and became more reality show than documentary, I felt a little queasy, like I’d been suckered into watching The Real Housewives of NXIVM.
We’re promised a second season. No thanks.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is another celebrity sucker punch, and it goes like this…
The documentary subject is Michelle McNamara, a true crime enthusiast determined to raise awareness about the Golden State Killer after she discovers his rape and murder spree dwarfs all known serial killers.
So, using a blog and podcast, she sets out to make him famous, which leads to her writing a 2013 cover story for Los Angeles Magazine, where she coins the name “Golden State Killer.”
This is all good, and there is no question McNamara was a talented writer.
The problem, though, is that what the documentary is really about is McNamara’s hunt for the Golden State Killer. She spent years — literally years — investigating his crimes all in an effort to bring him to justice. To do this, she spent years visiting the crime scenes, as well as interviewing victims and retired investigators. At one point, the police gave her the whole case file, enough boxes to fill a room.
Her quest became an obsession to a point where she neglected (by her own admission) her husband and young daughter and kept missing deadlines to finish her book on the Golden State Killer. And then… Suddenly…
Out of the blue, in the middle of all this drama in early 2016, when she hasn’t finished her book or cracked the case, McNamara dies of an accidental drug overdose. Adderall, Xanax, and fentanyl were all found in her system.
So, just like that, and without any warning, our protagonist dies before she’s achieved any of her goals and we’re told, Oh, yeah, she had a serious drug problem.
But you hang in watching because you’ve already invested four hours and this has to be going somewhere, right?
Two years later, the Golden State Killer is caught and — get this — Michelle McNamara didn’t have anything to do with catching him. In fact, the guy they caught wasn’t even on her radar, wasn’t even on a list of her potential suspects.
So we’ve just spent all this time with Michelle McNamara, been told her life story — all about her history and her problems with her mother and her love for her father and how some guy she worked for 20 years ago behaved improperly. We’ve shared in all this, including the stress she went through writing a book she never finished … and not only did she fail to catch the killer, she had zero to do with catching him.
When it was all over, my wife turned to me and said, What did we just watch?
Well, once again, just like The Vow, the potential for a fascinating documentary was ruined by this toxic celebrity mentality.
Why did HBO make a documentary about Michelle McNamara? There’s only one reason. She was a celebrity wife. She was comedian Patton Oswalt’s wife.
There’s no other answer.
There were plenty of people working just as hard as McNamara to crack the Golden State Killer case, including a former social worker who got started long before McNamara. HBO didn’t give any of them a six-hour documentary. The investigator and genealogist who ultimately cracked the case (with the help of an old newspaper article McNamara apparently missed) didn’t rate a HBO documentary.
But HBO did choose to focus for six hours on a woman who had nothing to do with capturing the Golden State Killer, and there’s simply no explanation for that, other than she was a celebrity’s wife.
The worst of it, and none of this is McNamara’s fault, is that the documentary tries to paper over her failure as a triumph of her life’s work, and then tries to portray McNamara as the final victim of the Golden State Killer.
I’m sorry, but McNamara’s story isn’t a triumph. It is a stone-cold tragedy, and the moral of her story, the meaning behind her tragic life, has nothing to do with the capture of this monster, which she played almost no part in.
McNamara’s story is of an obsession that got out of control as she fought a harrowing addiction that left behind a shattered husband and seven-year-old daughter. There’s no meaning behind that story, just a moral the documentary had no interest in exploring.