'Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath' Season 2: TV Review
There's little new information here, but the Emmy-nominated A&E docuseries remains deeply important.
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath offered few surprises in its debut season, at least to those of us who have attempted to keep up with the flood of criticism against the church in the past few years. Even without the benefit of shock or revelation, the popular A&E docuseries delivered heartbreaking stories from former Scientologists in every episode, mostly focused on the practice of “disconnection,” or the shunning of ex-members by friends and family. Journalistic accounts like Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief or Alex Gibney’s documentary of the same name may provide a fuller picture of the church’s sins. But the Emmy-nominated Scientology and the Aftermath feels like it’s created a movement, in which the formerly faithful are finally emboldened to speak out publicly against the institution.
Best friends Mirriam Francis and Saina Kamula, the subject of last night’s sophomore-season premiere, are two of a reported “deluge of people” inspired by the show to come forward. Their testimonies are arguably the most tragic yet. Both were separated from their mothers at an early age, both were sexually abused by authority figures close to them (Francis by her father, Kamula by a teacher at a Scientology school) and both were demeaned and silenced when they revealed the abuse to an adult. In Francis’ case, she was told to blame the sexual assault on someone other than her father, who had by then reached an untouchably high status within the church. L. Ron Hubbard wrote that children are “old souls in little bodies” — adults who happen to be in growing form — and thus require little parenting or care. And that doctrine led to Francis' and Kamula’s traumas — and, it’s easy to infer, many, many others’.
As with previous installments, the victims’ stories are presented with relatively little sensationalism, and Remini remains a brassy but open-hearted presence. Season two promises to expose more sexual and physical abuse within Scientology’s ranks, and the premiere proved an auspiciously sensitive start.
Catching up on the show’s debut season earlier this week, I thought about sexual assault a lot, though Scientology and the Aftermath has previously only touched upon the subject. Follow any celebrity rape trial — including the Cosby case that ended in a mistrial earlier this summer — and it’s clear that our culture demands that victims act and look a certain way to be considered credible. Scientology and the Aftermath isn’t specifically about sexual assault, but it, perhaps more than any other show currently on the air, captures what it’s like to fall prey to pressure and exploitation, to go along with something you know is bad or wrong out of fear and to not be a perfect victim — even if it’s “just” about being fleeced. It humanizes victimhood in the real world — and for that, it’s a deeply important series, regardless of any one viewer’s personal interest in Scientology.
It’s my dearest hope that Remini keeps the spotlight on victims’ stories. A&E didn’t provide critics with any screeners for the upcoming season, so I can only guess at what season two has to offer, but the promo spots leave me with not a small amount of anxiety. Certain previewed storylines are welcome: Writer-director Paul Haggis should provide illumination on Scientology’s two-tier system (celebrities and non-celebrities are treated very differently), and Remini’s co-presenter Mike Rinder, an ex-senior executive within the church, is long overdue for a sustained look at his own participation in Scientology’s bullying tactics.
But I have trepidations about the possible pivot from, essentially, an interview series to a reality show about Remini’s legal crusade against the church. Season one ended on a cliffhanger, with Remini consulting with her lawyers about what she personally could do to end Scientology (the meeting was not recorded or aired). That pugilistic attitude is evident in A&E calling this season “Round 2” and in Remini’s media-savvy attacks against church member Elisabeth Moss. (I don’t fault Remini for directing attention to where she wants it; as an actress and an activist, it’s her job to court the press.) But the nascent plots about Remini’s legal recourses and Scientologist attempts at intimidating the show’s producers mean that she and the crew threaten to become the story themselves.
“For some reason, I believe I am the person to help to make it right," Remini says at the top of season two. Her commitment is admirable; her savior complex, a bit too noticeable. Perhaps that’s unavoidable in an all-or-nothing crusade like this one. But every self-aggrandizing segment means one less for victims’ voices to be heard.
Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on A&E, beginning Aug. 15.