Parents' Guide to

The Vow

By Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 15+

Docu of scandalized cultish self-help group is eye-opening.

TV HBO Reality TV 2020
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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.

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