Internet, I’ve been procrastinating. That’s, at least partially, my excuse for not posting earlier this month or on my actual assigned day. The other excuses are that Russian is difficult to learn when you decide to go from nearly 0 to reading proficiency in six weeks and I’m a very lazy person who doesn’t pay attention to the date. The reason I’ve been procrastinating is that I’ve been worried on how to handle this one. I’ve wanted to write about Leah Remini’s A&E series on Scientology, “Scientology and the Aftermath.” While I found it to be a very compelling series, I’m not sure if it is the best put-together documentary show. However, I feel a bit guilty being too critical of it, as it’s obviously an incredibly emotional topic for Remini and she’s very earnest in how she handles it and what she chooses to cover. But I’ve finally decided that I really do need to write this. As something of a compromise to myself, I explain my critiques first and save the praise for last. It may be the same, but it feels better to me.
The Show as Documentary
In this series, which was originally meant to be an 8-part, 1 season series, but which is getting a second season, Leah Remini, a former Scientologist, seeks to expose the various unsavory activities of the Church. Along with her partner, Mike Rinder, Remini interviews a number of former Scientologists, who discuss various aspects of how the Church of Scientology operates and the ways it impacted their lives. Each episode is nominally centered around a topic, though these do blur together somewhat, as they’re really connected as a package of the way Scientology runs. For example, the episode on the impact of Scientology on family necessarily covers ground previously covered in how the Church treats those who leave it.
Overall, I don’t think the blurring together of some of the topics is necessarily a problem in and of itself—it’s often necessary because the real-life boundaries are unclear—but it does contribute something to what I think is the main weakness of the series: the amount of repetition. The two main components of the show are the interviews with former Scientologists and Remini’s musings on what they have said and what she has experienced. The latter part is always set in a bright white room. It’s very A&E. (There’s also a third component, as the two are frequently followed by people associated with Scientology. They have a number of strange run-ins that I find fascinating, but which doesn’t really play into this.) Sometimes this format works quite well, with a more free-flowing interview being summed up by Remini at the end. Other times, it just feels like she’s repeating what was already said. I think I noticed this most in the middle episodes. This may have been due to the fact that much of the information conveyed in those had necessarily been conveyed in earlier ones, but a lot of it felt like the interviewee saying something like “they made my children disconnect from me” and then the show cutting to Remini going, “they made her children disconnect from her.” While I understand the cuts were meant to repeat the information for emotional effect, I don’t feel like it worked particularly well. For me, I felt the emotional effect with the interviewee, so the repetition of the point felt a little emotionally hallow.
However, this may not have been entirely the fault of the show. It may have also been how A&E chose to do their little pre-commercial teasers. They’d often choose Remini saying something in the white room to be the preview of the next section. You’d then get the interview followed by the same scene that was played in the clip before the last commercial break. Because of this, I’m not 100% sure that this is a valid criticism of the series in and of itself, but it was an issue I found in the viewing experience.
The Show as Memoir
Though I can’t find a better word for it, I’m not sure it’s quite right to call the aspect of the show that I’m about to talk about a memoir. That makes it sound like a tell-all of Remini’s life and it’s not. Rather, is a discussion of many different people’s experiences, which often intersects with others’ stories. But it does have something of the emotional honesty of a memoir.
Moreover, this documentary is dripping with emotional honesty. You see former Scientologists opening up and revealing deeply personal things about their pasts, often the most painful parts of their lives. On the one hand, what they tell is valuable because it gives insight into a very secretive and litigious organization, but it’s so much more than that. They reveal real things that happened to real people. I think for a lot of us, Scientology is this wacky religion that believes in magic aliens and whatnot, but it’s more than that. It often works in very cult-like, manipulative ways and people’s lives have been destroyed. This is something that they do say in the show itself and I think it really hits at the heart of the series. Rather than looking at Scientology as a joke, it takes it seriously. And taking it seriously is really the only way to help those affected by it.
While this series may not be amazingly edited, it’s incredibly valuable for understanding the human impact of the Church of Scientology. It’s definitely worth a watch, especially in the next couple of weeks before season 2 begins on August 15th. I know I’ll be watching. And maybe doing another post on it. We’ll see.