Keith Raniere, the founder of misogynistic pyramid scheme/nightmarish sex cult/baffling late-night volleyball club NXIVM, was sentenced this week to a whopping 120 years in prison. Raniere’s sentencing comes at a moment when it feels like everyone you know is suddenly interested in NXIVM, and that surge in fascination is because there’s not one, not two, but several different documentary projects currently fueling the NXIVM curiosity. Two of them are very recent or currently running docuseries, The Vow and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, and although you might reasonably assume they present similar pictures of the organization, they’re surprisingly different depictions of exactly what Raniere and his followers believed.
It’s not just that they come at the question from different angles — it’s that the choice of what to emphasize in the NXIVM story radically shifts your understanding of Raniere’s crimes. That sense of how the story can shift becomes even clearer if you dig a little further back and check out the Escaping NXIVM season of the CBC podcast Uncover.
The odds are good that if you find yourself particularly gripped by NXIVM, you’re going to check out more than one of these. And unlike the competing Fyre Festival documentaries, if you’re fascinated by the story, it’s worth watching or listening to more than one. And fear not: Keith Raniere’s strange obsession with volleyball will show up regardless of which docuseries you pick.
How long is it? It’s a roughly nine-hour docuseries, but HBO recently announced that The Vow has been renewed for a second season, which puts some real pressure on that thin line between docuseries and reality show.
Who made it? The filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, who became interested in NXIVM after Noujaim herself took classes in the organization and became close with some of its members. Noujaim’s previous work includes the documentaries The Square and The Great Hack.
Who are the main characters? The Vow features accounts from many voices, including the actress Catherine Oxenberg and one woman who describes her experiences but prefers not to provide her name. But the central figures are Mark Vicente, his wife Bonnie Piesse, and Sarah Edmondson, all former high-level NXIVM members who have left the group.
What’s the major appeal? The Vow is an artsy, dreamy production, a series that deliberately feels very different from your standard true crime documentary. It’s much more invested in emotion and tone than in narrative clarity. The Vow’s biggest strength is in recreating the kind of slowly unfurling realization that the former NXIVM members themselves would’ve experienced. Rather than present all the facts in an orderly, chronological way, The Vow takes viewers on a winding journey. It holds back the worst moments until later in the season, in a way that mimics NXIVM’s own confusing, compelling pathway into the truly dark stuff at the center. Chief among The Vow’s appeal, though, is the sheer tonnage of archival material it has to work with, much of it recorded by Vicente, who is himself a filmmaker.
What’s the biggest drawback? That winding pathway? It’s beguiling but it’s not particularly up front about how NXIVM worked, what any of its mysterious subgroups were, or what founder Keith Raniere’s ideology even is. There’s a persistent sense that things inside NXIVM were clearly bad, but The Vow leaves enormous holes where you’d think some of the story’s most fascinating details would go. It glosses over Raniere’s past and ignores his number two Nancy Salzman as well as the mysterious Bronfman sisters who apparently provided much of the money. The Vow also spends quite a while on the guilt of its former members, and much less time on what they’re actually guilty about: there’s remarkably little attention, for instance, on Raniere’s violent misogyny.
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (Starz)
How long is it? The series is four episodes long, with each episode clocking in at an hour or longer.
Who made it? It’s executive-produced and directed by Cecilia Peck, whose previous documentaries include Brave Miss World and Shut Up & Sing. One of its other executive producers is India Oxenberg, who is the main character at the center of the series.
Who are the main characters? While The Vow tries to take a more sweeping look at NXIVM, Seduced focuses quite narrowly on India Oxenberg, a former high-level NXIVM member. In some ways it feels like a sequel to The Vow — significant chunks of the HBO series are dedicated to Catherine Oxenberg trying to drum up public awareness so she can get the cult shut down and force India to leave. Seduced is India’s own story of her involvement, told from the perspective of finally leaving the group.
What’s the major appeal? All that clarity and forthright directness missing in The Vow? You can find it in Seduced, which is much more explicit and direct about exactly how bad it was for members of DOS, a secretive women’s group inside NXIVM. Many of the questions raised by The Vow are still unanswered (Nancy! Where are the details about Nancy!), but Seduced goes a long way toward rectifying The Vow’s wishy-washiness about the sexual power dynamics with Raniere and with other figures in the organization, including Allison Mack. Footage The Vow fails to notice — especially of some of Raniere’s more obviously disgusting teachings — gets much more emphatic focus. Seduced also makes an effort to put NXIVM’s operation into cultural context, with more footage of interviews with cult experts and trauma specialists.
What’s the biggest drawback? If the artful production values and mountains of archival footage are compelling draws for you, Seduced won’t hit in quite the same way. It relies more on animated re-enactments, and in general has a more familiar, blunt documentary style. As a series centered on one woman’s experience, its scope is also necessarily more limited, and it doesn’t have the sense that the story is unfurling in front of the cameras. It’s a retrospective, and it feels held at more of a remove.
How long is it? Uncover is a seven-season podcast to date, with the first season dedicated to NXIVM. That season is eight episodes long, with three additional bonus episodes. In total it runs about six and a half hours.
Who made it? It’s produced by CBC (which is like the Canadian version of NPR!), and the host is a journalist named Josh Bloch. Bloch is an interesting host figure for a NXIVM series because he is childhood friends with Sarah Edmondson, one of the most public former NXIVM members.
Who are the main characters? Bloch found the NXIVM story after reconnecting with Edmondson, someone he once knew fairly well when they were both in school. Edmondson is Bloch’s primary figure, but Uncover also includes interviews with several significant figures from Raniere’s past, with Edmondson’s husband Nippy, and with other experts who help Bloch contextualize both Raniere’s behavior and cults more broadly. Most notably, Bloch has a long conversation with Raniere’s defense attorney, and includes more coverage of Raniere’s trial.
What’s the major appeal? Uncover is really the best of all worlds, NXIVM-wise. It feels personal in much the same way The Vow and Seduced do, but Bloch’s presence as an interlocutor for Edmondson means that he can guide listeners through the information. Both Seduced and The Vow struggle to do this in a way that feels natural, and Uncover manages it smoothly, while also incorporating useful expert input. Bloch is transparent about his connection to the story, but he also uses his relationship with Edmondson to really push her on her participation in the cult, something The Vow shies away from. Maybe best of all, Uncover has the most thorough information on Raniere’s background, and also gets into some very weird details of his belief system that don’t show up on any of the other series.
What’s the biggest drawback? It’s a podcast, which means you lack all the visual punch of seeing Raniere decked out in his volleyball sweatbands. Without the visuals, you also lose some of the key textures of NXIVM’s strange intensity — the sashes, the summer camp vibes of their annual retreat, the bland corporate look of the intro classes. It was also produced earlier than the other docuseries, so much of it was made before major events like Raniere’s arrest and the larger collapse of the cult, although the bonus episodes address much of this.