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A TV series I would watch: The lawyers at a cable TV network have to scramble to negotiate proper accommodations with one of the world’s most notoriously prickly and litigious churches as the clock ticks down to a pre-announced premiere date for a new docuseries bent on eviscerating said church. It’s 24 meets The Good Wife meets The Newsroom meets Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master!
A&E’s new nonfiction series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath premieres Tuesday and in the first episode, the only one made available to critics, I was being steadily distracted by what I can only assume was a behind-the-scenes clearance process of epic proportions. On the screener I watched, each programming segment was preceded by a title card reading “The Church disputes many of the statements made by those appearing in this program,” directing viewers to additional information on the A&E website, while several segments were also preceded by specific denials from the Church of Scientology, text from official letters sent as recently as early November. Back when things were shot on film, a movie delivered straight from the developer to the projection booth was described as being wet, and were that idiom still relevant, it would surely apply to Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, which is engrossing, but probably not as captivating as what’s taking place to get the show to air.
Air date: Nov 29, 2016
Former King of Queens star Remini adds a celebrity twist to what is otherwise a very on-brand eight-episode series for the Intervention network. After more than 30 years of active church participation and promotion, Remini broke with Scientology in 2013, and Scientology and the Aftermath is simultaneously a personal memoir and a weekly anthology of other former Scientologists who allege various levels of abuse and harassment both during their time with the church and after leaving.
I say “allege” because Scientology doesn’t mess around when it comes to tearing various participants in the series to shreds, starting with Remini, whom a letter accuses of “refusing to abide by the high level of ethics and decency Scientologists are expected to maintain,” referring also to “egregious” transgressions. Let it just be said that everybody appearing in the first episode is wholly convincing and that the Church of Scientology’s denials are very prominent, albeit limited to white text on black screens.
If you’ve seen the well-received Alex Gibney documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief or seen any of the dozens of extended documentaries, newsmagazine segments or articles on Scientology, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath starts off as far from revelatory. In fact, just as you can constantly sense the attorneys scurrying to keep things kosher backstage, you can also sense Remini and her fellow producers avoiding anything excessively sensationalistic.
Eventually, Remini may get to the nitty-gritty about Xenu, thetans, OT levels and all of the “fun” stuff that comes from a religion started by a science-fiction writer and perpetuated by John Travolta, but the first episode limits defining of Scientology to “a religious course of study and counseling based on self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment” — and Remini still talks about her initial conviction that Scientology was dedicated to self-improvement and improvement of the Earth. Nobody’s going to be shocked to discover that Scientology loves its celebrities or that there was somebody whose job it was to make sure that Tom Cruise was surrounded by fellow Scientologists, but it’s a fact that’s included presumably to throw a bone to those yearning for celebrity dirt. Remini also explains how it was at Cruise’s wedding that a poorly received inquiry about the wife of leader David Miscavige led her to feel bullied. And Leah Remini doesn’t like being bullied.
Remini’s screen persona, dating back to the odd beach season of Saved by the Bell, has always included a certain toughness, and that carries through here. Talking-head segments, usually her personal reflections, in a gauzy white warehouse space, are a little silly and staged, but when she goes on the road with former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, Remini is able to let that personality come out. The series benefits immensely. As Remini and Rinder roadtrip, Remini isn’t embarrassed to interrupt a serious conversation to announce her need for a pee stop and as an interviewer, she’s empathetic and prone to asking the sort of outraged questions many viewers at home will have. The places where you’re ready to swear at your TV are probably the places where Remini has to get bleeped out herself.
Each episode will presumably include visits to one or more former Scientologists, with Remini helping to document their grievances. The premiere includes Amy Scobee, once a senior executive. Scobee was responsible for the Celebrity Centre and she contributes the Cruise story, which made me constantly aware that she’s only spilling her guts on the tiniest percentage of what she knows. This is a woman who has heard confessionals from some of the most powerful and famous people in Hollywood and she’s holding back. Kudos for her restraint — a sentiment definitely held by A&E’s lawyers — but it also indicates a level of creepiness and clout that couldn’t hurt the show’s case if its goal is to bring down the Scientology hierarchy. Even holding back, Scobee’s stories about having her statutory rape buried by the church and later being labeled a “suppressive” person and having to cut off contact with her mother generate the appropriate frustration and sadness (especially given her ailing mother’s participation from a hospital bed).
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath will stir up some viewer emotions, but it’s not a dynamic series, even with the added footage of Remini and Rinder in transit between interviews. It’s a lot of sitting around talking, interspersed with footage from fairly innocuous Scientology promotional videos and event interviews. There are plenty of L. Ron Hubbard interviews and Scientology orientation movies that look shocking and freakish from an outsider’s perspective, but I think Remini’s goal is to use the stock material to normalize, to explain the lure that Scientology can have, and save the shock for the interviews.
Ideally the interviews will gain cumulative power as Remini continues her journey, but it’s hard to tell from the premiere how the escalation will work. The “Coming up this season …” reel features Remini saying, “We’re hearing the same story over and over again,” and that’s honestly my fear when it comes to eight episodes of Scientology and the Aftermath. Of course, those clips also imply that Scientology officials aren’t going to take kindly to Remini’s quest, bringing some thriller elements into the series. Yes, it’s ghoulish for me to want that, but it’s also pretty instinctive as a TV viewer.
Avoiding the juicier details of Scientology surely will make this show easier for A&E’s lawyers to clear and perhaps it will help Remini get more survivors/victims to come out of the woodwork for future seasons, but there’s a big audience that’s going to be curious about this one for tawdry, exploitative reasons and what they’ll find is more muted and humane than that. That can be a good thing, but through only one episode here I’m not sure if I’m craving more.
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (A&E)
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