The Vow

TV review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
The Vow TV Poster Image
Docu of scandalized cultish self-help group is eye-opening.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Not many positive messages can be gleaned from cult that used positive thinking as a cornerstone of its chicanery, but viewers may be encouraged to use more critical thinking and approach questionable opinions and practices with a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Series participants are generally honest and forthright about why they got into Nxivm and what they did, good and bad, while involved. Many Nxivm participants are exposed for their questionable, immoral, or illegal actions, and lines between self-help and self-harm are examined. 

Violence

Sexual coercion was part of Nxivm practices. Expect to hear about nonconsensual sexual relationships and those who participated in them and why. Some members were branded as part of an initiation ritual -- we don't see it, but it's graphically described by traumatized participants, and we see the scars. 

Sex

Some Nxivm members were convicted on federal sex trafficking charges for their actions. Sexual coercion was part of Nxivm's practices. Expect to hear about nonconsensual sexual relationships. No sexual acts or nudity are shown.

Language

Language is frequent; expect to hear lots of "f--k," "s--t," phrases like "What the f--k?" and "Holy s--t!" as well as "f--king," "bulls--t," and "ass." 

Consumerism

Nxivm was a for-profit company. Much of its initial capital came from the Seagram heiresses' fortune. Member contributions, as well as Nxivm's paid products and services, also funded the company. There's a direct tie-in to Hollywood and the entertainment industry, as members were purposely scouting those networks for money and notoriety.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Vow is a docuseries about a group that self-identifies as a multilevel marketing company and self-help group but has been called a cult by others, and federal charges have been filed against many of its leaders. Most of Nxivm's documented misdeeds were financial and sexual. Expect to hear details about what adherents did for and with the group, including information about sexual and financial coercion that crossed the line into criminal abuse. The most notorious Nxivm incident involved several high-level members getting branded with the initials of cult insiders -- you'll see scars on participants' bodies and hear graphic descriptions of the branding. Language includes "f--k," "f--king," "s--t," and "ass." Participants are honest about their own misdeeds, as well as the positive parts of being involved in Nxivm, and it may be reassuring to know that many of Nxivm's wrongdoers have been exposed and charged with crimes. Viewers may be encouraged to think more critically about self-help groups and other groups that may or may not have good intentions.

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What's the story?

THE VOW investigates the history of Nxivm, a mysterious group based in Albany, New York, that sold itself as a sort of multilevel marketing company designed to encourage clients to optimize their personal success, but whose practices have resulted in federal charges of sex trafficking, racketeering, and more. Weaving together interviews with ex-adherents along with educational materials from Nxivm, news reports, and personal footage of Nxivm events, The Vow uncovers the truth about Nxivm and the people involved in it.

Is it any good?

Digging into what newspaper headlines have called a "sex cult" seems like a slam dunk for a series, but the Nxivm story might have been better told in a shorter running time. Though this docuseries does score when it investigates the impact that Nxivm had on the lives of those involved, it sags when we spend time actually listening to Nxivm blather, and we do quite a bit of that, particularly in the first episode. As we watch educational videos prepared by Nxivm bigwigs Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, a sort of spell creeps over the viewer, but it's more akin to boredom than fascination. The jury-rigged pseudoscientific terminology and acronyms alone are numbing: rational inquiry, disintegrations, limiting beliefs ... do we have to spend time listening to this nonsense before getting to the good stuff? 

And there is indeed good stuff to be had here, and the tension does ratchet up as the series proceeds. As followers of the Nxivm story already know, the group started with educational workshops and potential-building meetings, and ended up with its most fervent followers handing over all their money and undergoing a horrific and physically scarring ritual. It's interesting to listen to people who came to the group for help improving their lives and instead ended up ruining them, and The Vow certainly has a lot of material to work with: It feels like Nxivm filmed all their parties and meetings, and ex-adherents are articulate and eager to talk about their experiences. But you may want to hit that fast-forward button every time Nxivm leaders appear on the screen.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the news presents information. The Vow features clips of TV news reports covering the events at the time. Does the news coverage seem biased or does it seem objective?

  • What is a cult? Why do you think people would join a group like Nxivm? What's the difference between a cult and a religion? A cult and a social group or community? What are some cults that have made an impact on world history? 

  • Nxivm has a lot of jargon connected with it. How is this jargon similar to words used in other businesses and self-help groups you know? Is this similarity intentional? How do the acronyms and jargon create a feeling of "insiderness" and make those new to Nxivm feel like outsiders? 

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