Cult docuseries don’t dig deep enough

The Remnant Fellowship Church, which is central to the documentary series The Way Down

The Remnant Fellowship Church, which is in the center of The way down docuseries
Photo: HBO Max

In recent years, there has been a spike in cult documentaries, with HBO leading the way. The premium cable network has acquired Scientology (Getting Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Faith), NXIVM (The promise), QAnon (Question: In the storm), and the ‘cult of cults’, Heaven’s Gate. The latter was produced by HBO’s streaming arm, HBO Max, which is also behind the latest entry in this growing body of work. The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin is a five-part docuseries about the Remnant Fellowship Church and its captivating leader, whose zeal sent her devout Christians and non-believers alike.

As with many documentaries, the central story is one that is still unfolding, but The way down filmmakers — director Marina Zenovich and producer Nile Cappello — faced a major curveball before their series was released. On May 29, a plane crashed into Tennessee’s Percy Priest Lake, killing seven passengers, including Remnant Fellowship founder Gwen Shamblin Lara and her husband, Joe Lara. Zenovich told The New York Times the team failed to interview Shamblin Lara for the docuseries before her death, and they weren’t expecting that; As can be seen in archived footage, the weight loss guru who turned himself into a prophet proved to be a highly critical interviewee when subjected to any scrutiny. Asked about some of her beliefs – she compared, almost cheerfully, the forced starvation of incarcerated people to portion control – Shamblin Lara either became defensive or was chased off the set by one of her attendants.

Zenovich and Cappello folded the plane crash and the issue of succession into the Remnant Fellowship Church leadership in their docuseries, which will be released in two parts: the first three episodes aired September 30 on HBO Max, the remaining two episodes are scheduled. for next spring. This end-of-the-hour pivot is palpable throughout the series (or at least the three episodes available right now), making the same mistake as many streaming shows, scripted and unscripted — getting the story going and asking viewers to wait for a big payout.

The way down begins promisingly enough, jumping back in time from the plane crash to a May 2019 statement, when a defiant Shamblin Lara let criticism of her church bounce off her painted face and hair. As abhorrent as her ideals prove to be, Shamblin Lara is an undeniably captivating subject for investigation, her towering ‘doing’ and haughty speech creating an aura of mysticism around her (not to mention that she literally ‘seems’ ‘ in her name). How did a former Church Of Christ member, who was extremely oppressive to her female members, become the leader of her own church? Especially when the foundation of her weight loss program, Weigh Down, was based on simple portion control, information that was already widely available when she launched in the 1990s?

Zenovich and Cappello tried to answer those questions and found misogyny in evangelism and our appearance-obsessed culture in equal measure. They build their docuseries on interviews from former Remnant Fellowship members, including Gina Graves and Teri Phillips — who joined Shamblin Lara’s church after being first indoctrinated into her weight-loss program — as well as cult interventionist Rev. Rafael Martinez and investigative journalist/lawyer Paul Morantz. Instead of talking to Shamblin Lara (or a senior member of the church leadership), there’s expansive footage from Weigh Down videos and conferences, as well as clips of testimonials from the diet guru.

Following Shamblin Lara’s ascendancy makes for gripping TV – one interviewee marvels at her ability to establish what essentially matrilineage is in her church, given her upbringing in the Church Of Christ. The way down however, avoids painting Shamblin Lara as some sort of Southern Evangelical girl boss; her hypocrisy and the exclusionary nature of her organization is often mentioned. Helen Byrd, one of the few black members of Remnant Fellowship, mocks Shamblin Lara for setting herself up as a model for the behavior of others.

But you’ll need the investigative skills of Cappello or Morantz to keep up with all of the storylines spanning the first three episodes; tso many time jumps and new players have been introduced here. The way down follows the model of fraud/true-crime docuseries such as tiger king, dishing out his revelations and using an emphatic score to accentuate the twists and hints for more to come. All too often the series leaves one thread to throw another into the mix, or get overlapping anecdotes from ex-Remnant Fellowship members. The story of the Wingerds, whose daughter Delaney eventually married in Remnant Fellowship, is spread over three episodes. Theirs is an undoubtedly disturbing story, but it is almost undermined by the insistence on frequent pauses to ramp up the tension.

Natasha Pavlovich

Natasha Pavlovich
Photo: HBO Max

The life and death of Josef Smith, who was murdered by his parents Joseph and Sonya Smith in 2003, is practically held at the end of the second episode. Joseph and Sonya were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church; they adopted the Church’s guidelines regarding corporal punishment, which were embraced by Shamblin Lara, as evidenced by one of the many tapes distributed throughout her organization. Remnant Fellowship paid for the Smiths’ legal defense and maintained a website declaring their innocence. Although the Smiths were found guilty of murder, the prosecution has never attempted to directly link Remnant Fellowship to their crimes.

This vein is mostly left untouched – apart from a brief interview with the eldest son of the Smiths, there isn’t much contemporary commentary about this kind of brutality being applied to the most vulnerable members of Remnant Fellowship, or how the Smith family dealt with the mostly white membership, or how black teens like Autumn are coping with it since they left church. Instead, The way down sticks to more obvious stories, such as the controversial custody battle between Natasha Pavlovich and Joe Lara, or returns to footage of Shamblin Lara making converts about how her congregants’ appearances were a direct reflection of their righteousness.

It’s a fairly common pitfall for TV series: An overabundance of ideas or stories creates rubbernecks and ultimately a feeling of dissatisfaction. HBO also seems spurred on by the growing interest in cult documentaries (gosh wonder why), but in its rush to meet demand, it has turned out to be more of a curiosity than an extensive exploration. The remaining two episodes deal with the aftermath of the plane crash and the rise of Shamblin Lara’s successors. They could connect the wires that unwound in all directions in the first half of the series, but they seem to spread the focus just as well. The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin doesn’t do much more with his litany of topics than recite them.


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