“When I first started filming this show, I thought I would just be documenting stories of families torn apart by the Church of Scientology’s policies and practices,” intones the once comedy actress and now justice crusader Leah Remini as she stares straight into the camera, the image pushing in on her face. “What I uncovered was much deeper and darker than I ever expected.” Last night, A&E launched a new series called Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath from the outspoken actress and longtime Scientologist as she continues to fight against what she sees as the hypocrisy and abuses of her former religion ... né cult, né corporation, né money-grubbing scam, depending on who you talk to.
The series is mostly comprised of interviews that Remini made with former members of Scientology detailing the horrors that they experienced during their time in the church, from Scientology’s policy of cutting off contact between family members who leave, to fraud, to physical and sexual abuse. A lot of these allegations have been made public before, but the openness about sexual abuse is relatively new information in the narrative around Scientology and its problems, along with what former Sea Organization member Amy Scobee describes in the first episode as the church’s practice of punishing abuse from within a secret internal system. But for the most part, the stories that Remini seeks to tell are like others that have trickled out in recent years, as Scientology has incurred more and more high-profile defections. Remini’s series doesn’t try to match the sweep or the levels of access that Alex Gibney’s defection doc Going Clear had to offer; instead, the endeavor focuses more on becoming intimate with the individuals who decided to open themselves up to Remini and her crew. In this regard, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath feels designed to appeal to those who are still in the belly of the beast as insiders, not outsiders.
But if Scientology is a religion fixated on the power of celebrity, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath has come to fight fire with fire, and it’s the deployment of Remini herself as the soldier on the front line willing to draw enemy fire that makes the series effective. With her straight talk, ever-present Brooklyn accent, and will to advocate for the people she perceives to be disenfranchised, Remini is like a Nancy Grace you don’t have to feel terrible about enjoying. Her position as one of the most visible and vocal critics of Scientology makes her particular involvement play as a saga larger than the scope of one series. Remini shares videos of herself from 15 years ago, when she was still shilling for Scientology at celebrity breakfasts alongside stars like John Travolta and Giovanni Ribisi, and the footage is as dishy as it is embarrassing, with Remini passionately espousing proclamations about how Scientology is the only organization in the world trying to help the planet with the same dead-eyed conviction as the most cultish of Scientology’s many devotees. Meanwhile, the potential legal implications of Remini’s outspokenness are never far from the surface of the series, as each segment after a commercial break presents another disclaimer reminding audiences about the church’s official nonparticipation, recalling the many years of lawsuits that have followed accusations in the past.
Remini retreads the story she told in her book, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, about her own involvement with Scientology. Her mother fell in love with a man who introduced the family to the religion, and he left her as she was pregnant with their child. Remini became the breadwinner as soon as she could, as she and her mother were taken in by other Scientologist families who promised support so long as they were a part of the religion. For people who have heard the story before, Remini juices the narrative up with the threats and smears currently coming her way from the spokespeople for Scientology. If the church thinks they could scare viewers away by accusing Remini of turning on the church for her own personal gain, Remini is there to read those accusations at the start of the hour, noting that the Church of Scientology lists her collaborators as “deadbeats, admitted liars, perjurers, wife-beaters, and worse.” As an audience, Remini leaves it up to you to decide if what she has made is “a cheap reality TV show” as the church protests, or if her project is the truth-seeking exposé she promises.
Make no mistake, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath is a flattering self-portrait — Remini regularly draws attention to her own status as a star, maybe lingers a little too long on her own outrage at hearing her interviewees’ stories, and, duh, her name is in the title — but with a Goliath like the Church of Scientology, there’s something kind of delightful about watching David get a big head about flinging rocks.