Critic's Notebook: Scientology TV Is the Most Elaborate — and Tedious — Infomercial Ever
The Church of Scientology promises "not to preach" with its new network, which indeed is far more boring and inane than preachy.
The Church of Scientology unveiled its new propaganda … I mean, infomercial … I mean, television network on Monday night.
Available on DirectTV and a variety of streaming services, Scientology TV began with three hours of original programming, so any hopes that it would feature the John Travolta movie Battlefield Earth on a continuous loop were immediately dashed. I watched the entire lineup — so you didn't have to. I don't want to say that the shows were unrelievedly boring, but I sure was glad I didn't have to operate heavy machinery afterwards.
The network launched with the emergence from witness protection of the church's publicity-shy leader, David Miscavige. The beautifully coifed, deeply tanned and sharply suited Miscavige looked straight into the camera and said, "We get it, people are curious." He took pains to reassure any viewers who might be wary.
"We're not here to preach to you, to convince you or to convert you," he proclaimed, oozing the sort of faux sincerity of which other cult leaders could only be envious. As a religious leader, Miscavige projects all the gravitas of Ryan Seacrest. (He's also only 5-foot-1 — which may be why he gets along so well with Tom Cruise.)
The opening program, Inside Scientology, provided an introduction to the religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard, whom Miscavige described as "a true-life genius and honest-to-God Renaissance Man." The show provided a look at the church's lavish headquarters that are located, naturally, in Hollywood. Because when you think of spiritual enlightenment, you think of Hollywood. The program also featured a behind-the-scenes look at the church's media production studio, which looked like the best money could buy. It's amazing how much you can grow your business when you don't have to pay taxes.
Representing a much more efficient recruitment method than simply waiting for disaffected individuals to walk through the doors, Inside Scientology outlined the church's programs including seminars, courses and workshops which, since there was no mention of fees whatsoever, must obviously be offered to the public free of charge. Many of the centers apparently operate as health centers as well, offering treadmills and saunas for people to detox themselves of all the nasty drugs they've been taking.
Then there's "auditing," which involves answering questions while holding vibrator-shaped electrodes connected to something called an "E-Meter," which reveals the source of all your troubles. (I had a similar device as a child. It was called a Ouija board.)
A lesson on the "Principles of Scientology" featured glossily shot footage of good-looking young people of different ethnicities who all had glowing skin. Everyone was smiling. A lot. (It should really be called the Church of Stepford-ology.) Scenes of children running through sun-dappled fields and very fit people working out provided the visuals for a primer about how we all possess a "thetan" and that the "A-R-C Triangle," composed of "Affinity, Reality and Communication," will help us get along better in our jobs and relationships. It has to do with recalling the first day you saw glistening dew on the leaves of a tree. Or something like that.
Meet a Scientologist sounded promising, like a cult religion's version of The Dating Game. No such luck. Instead, the first episode profiled Greg and Janet Deering, the founders of the Deering Banjo Company in San Diego. The middle-aged couple, both wearing unhip, wire-rimmed glasses, recounted how they founded their company because of Greg's dream of producing an affordable banjo. They started the business out of their house and now produce 80 different models, including the "Zombie Killer" banjo inspired by the movie Zombieland. At the end of the episode, they dropped the bombshell, "We're Scientologists." The admission was meant to reassure us that Scientologists are just like everyone else. After all, what musical instrument is less threatening than a banjo? It's not like they're manufacturing theremins.
Destination: Scientology spotlights good deeds performed by the Church of Scientology around the world. The inaugural episode chronicled how the opening of a Scientology community center in Inglewood, California, apparently solved the city's problems relating to crime, drugs, gang violence, prostitution and joblessness. It had something to do with volunteers handing out free bottles of water to drivers waiting at traffic lights.
The premiere of Voices for Humanity profiled siblings Sandra and Felipe Poveda of Colombia (cue the panpipes), who have dedicated themselves to improving human rights in their "magical" country wracked by guerrilla violence for more than a half-century. To that end, they've created human rights-themed videos and established the Human Rights School to teach the military the value of rescuing injured soldiers rather than just shooting them where they lie. The episode featured footage of Felipe and the very telegenic Sandra meeting with such figures as the head of the country's National Police, who, despite his forbidding position, looked as harmless as a pussycat.
Finally, there was L. Ron Hubbard in His Own Voice, which profiled the man who started, as we were constantly reminded, "the only major religion with the voice of its founder intact." To affirm the point, the show included audio excerpts from lectures delivered by Hubbard in the 1950s. To say that the jokey, digression-filled comments unveiled here were not exactly the Sermon on the Mount is an understatement.
Now, when I think about Hubbard, I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman getting masturbated by Amy Adams in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. But that's just me. As the show would have it, he was a genius and visionary thinker, someone eminently qualified to establish "the only major religion founded in the 20th century" because he was the youngest Eagle Scout ever.
The show provided a breathless account of his achievements, including being a licensed glider pilot and a successful writer of fantasy fiction (you'd think that writing pulp fiction would set off a red flag when it comes to founding a religion, but no) — although, judging by the evidence displayed here, his primary occupation seemed to be posing for photographs.
The narrator informed us that Hubbard was "a man who lived life from the top down and the bottom up," and I'm still trying to figure out what means. Needless to say, there was no mention of the myriad controversies surrounding Hubbard's life, including numerous fraud and conspiracy charges around the world. But to be fair, maybe the network is saving that for future episodes.