NXIVM, a self-improvement/multi-level marketing company whose former members describe it as a cult with a secret sex-slavery ring inside it, and Richard Scott Smith, a man whose exes describe him as “a liar, thief and most of all a con man,” could not be more different on the surface. But they do have two things in common: preying on people who trusted them, and being the subjects of new documentary reality series.
Those shows, HBO’s The Vow and Showtime’s Love Fraud, are themselves very different, but do have two things in common: both are incredibly effective at letting their victims and accusers share their stories, and both attempt to unspool their stories in real-time. The way their stories unfold makes them very different viewing experiences, and both compelling and frustrating in varying ways.
The Vow comes from directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. Noujaim was the co-director of the 2001 documentary Startup.com. which followed, thanks to extraordinary access, the rise and fall of a startup called govWorks. It was founded by childhood friends Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, and watching their business rise and their friendship fall apart makes for an extraordinary and riveting film (you can watch it on Amazon).
The access to Tom and Kaleil (whose life since govWorks could make for another series) was key to Startup.com’s success, and The Vow has similar access. That’s what makes it so compelling, and what’s particularly interesting is that one of its subjects actually provided a lot of the footage. Mark Vicente, who’s a filmmaker himself, was high up in NXIVM and so close to its founder, Keith Raniere, that he began filming behind the scenes of NXIVM.
He also recorded his phone calls, amassing a lot of documentation of life inside NXIVM and after leaving. We watch in real time as Mark and his wife Bonnie Piesse, an actor who left NXIVM first and was shunned, struggle through paranoia and trust when Mark finally decides to leave. We watch as he learns about, and then struggles to comprehend the existence of DOS, a secret society of women who turned over incriminating information and became “slaves” to their “masters” in the organization. A friend that he brought into NXIVM, Sarah Edmonson, gradually reveals that she’s part of DOS.
This is, to be brief, some crazy shit, and The Vow takes its time explores what NXIVM was and, more importantly, why so many people fell so deeply into it—so deep that those in DOS were branded with Keith Raniere or Smallville actor Allison Mack’s initials. Mack was a “master” who recruited women, and pled guilty, apologizing in court for “who I’ve hurt through my misguided adherence to Keith Raniere’s teachings.” (Both Raniere and Mack are now awaiting sentencing.)
Directors Noujaim and Amer unspool all this slowly—perhaps too slowly at first. It’s not always great television to just listen to telephone call recordings. But the cumulative effect ends up being powerful, and what I find so compelling is just being there in the moment with people as they discuss what to do, and wrestle with what they’ve done and what they should do. The guilt and regret and pain pours off the screen.
Besides Mark and Bonnie, other central characters include Dynasty actor Catherine Oxenberg, who’s trying to rescue her daughter from inside NXIVM, and Edmondson, who ran the Vancouver branch of NXIVM but left and then went public, and her husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames.
The words I just typed, “left and then went public,” and even the New York Times article they link to, don’t come anywhere near to capturing the anguish, the fear, the anger—everything Sarah went through as she both extricated herself from NXVIM and exposed what’d happened to her, including her brand. But The Vow does capture it well, and that’s why it’s such a captivating TV show.
Love Fraud can’t quite tell its story
Love Fraud was, unfortunately, oversold. Showtime said the four-episode series, which concluded a week ago, “unravels in real time as his victims band together to seek sweet revenge by turning to a bounty hunter when they feel the justice system has failed them.”
This sounds like Catfish meets The Avengers, but it’s nowhere near as linear and dramatic as that description implies.
Love Fraud does certainly have thrilling moments, but to frame the four hours as women banding together and hunting down a man who’s conned them and worse—well, that’s not exactly it.
But it is quite a compelling show. That’s because its first three episodes give most of their focus to the women who could answer yes to the question, “Has this man victimized you?”, the subhead on a website about “Con man Richard Scott Smith,” where women share stories and connect the dots between their relationships.
The narrative wants desperately to be a pursuit, but it struggles to hold that together, especially since the timeline often gets mushy. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady excel at profiling their subjects, and bringing us in to their experience of trusting a man who then betrayed them, but they also struggle to weave all this together into a connected story rather than a series of scenes.
In an early episode, we see one of Smith’s exes, Tracy, driving, filmed from the back seat of her car, and we hear a phone call. “It’s Heidi from the production. What are you guys planning on doing next to find him?” Tracy answers and adds, “Do you wanna come?” Heidi, the co-director, pauses for too long and then says, “Fuck yeah.” This comes across like a conversation recreated for the sake of the show—it’s the most flat “fuck yeah” I’ve ever heard spoken—and it doesn’t make any sense to hear it while the camera crew is actually with Tracy.
In episode two, the camera is in the passenger seat as its driver, Jim, loads his gun: he’s searching for his wife, who he says took their 401(k) money and has apparently been gone long enough to have opened a Witchita fast casual restaurant, Krab Kingz, with Richard Scott Smith. But later we see them in a bar, reconciled, and everything’s fine. If the filmmakers were there with Jim in real time as he looked for his wife—and why exactly it’s okay for him to be pursuing her and/or Smith like this is something the show just skips over—why don’t we see what happened?
The same thing happens, with bounty hunter Carla, the show’s central character. She wasn’t conned by Smith, but wants to help the women who were. “I will kill anybody that tries to touch me again. If Richard Scott Smith, came in and robbed me like these other women, I’d be in prison. I’d have slit his throat and watched him bleed to death, and then admitted to doing it. Because I’m not going to let him do that to somebody else,” she says. Exactly when she joined the pursuit, and when filming began, is unclear.
Carla appears, demonstrates both her commitment to the cause and what a great shot she is, and then evaporates. Alas, Smith is outside of her bounty-hunting jurisdiction. She returns in the finale as a sort of accessory, because there are suddenly new private investigators involved then, and while she’s in the car at a pivotal moment, she is essentially a passive observer.
Like so many true-crime shows, Love Fraud struggles with its ending. It’s not a spoiler to say that the filmmakers have some access to Richard Scott Smith, as we hear his voice, justifying and rationalizing and making the case for his own humanity, throughout the series. In the finale, the directors get a prison interview with him, only to ask weak questions and let him talk his way around what he’s done to the women we’ve heard from.
Smith may never have confessed to all of the things he’s accused of throughout Love Fraud, but given this opportunity to press him on things, the women—and viewers—deserved a better interrogation. The finale ends up being thrilling and anticlimactic, satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time.
What holds the show together and makes it compelling are the individual stories. We meet woman after woman, each with a similar story. The stories they tell go beyond money and include assault and other forms of abuse. Instead of recreations, Love Fraud mostly uses animated collages, which are beautiful and surreal and haunting. They’re a jumble of entrancing images, kind of like the show itself.
The Vow: A-
Love Fraud: B+