A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath”: Your antidote to seasonal belief disorder

Leah Remini and other former Scientologists speak out about their experiences in A&E's eight-episode docuseries

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 30, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Leah Remini   (AP/Richard Shotwell/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Photo montage by Salon)
Leah Remini (AP/Richard Shotwell/Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Photo montage by Salon)

Barely 40 seconds into opening episode of A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m., a title card appears that reads, “The Church disputes many of the statements made by those appearing in this program.”

The message goes on to direct viewers to a webpage for more information in the form of letters provided by the Church of Scientology regarding “matters discussed in this series.” As of early Tuesday afternoon, hours prior to the nonfiction program’s debut, the link in question was not yet live. No matter: Remini gave viewers an idea of what they’ll find there in the following preview trailer.

Just in case that initial disclaimer wasn’t enough to appease the notoriously litigious church, the aforementioned title card runs regularly throughout the hour alongside other cards displaying excerpts of church correspondence with A&E attempting to discredit Remini’s sources, many of them former senior members of the church, as well as impugning Remini herself.

The first declared dispute directly follows that overall disclaimer and starts with “viewers should know the duplicity at work when Ms. Remini stage-managed her departure from the Church of Scientology.”

Happy Holidays, folks, and welcome to the season of fascination, wonder and the magic of belief. Most viewers probably wouldn’t count “Scientology and the Aftermath” among their holiday viewing options, we’re guessing. But when you think about it, Remini’s eight-part series is a palate cleanser, an antidote to all the saccharine sentiment blanketing the TV schedule about dancing snowmen and deer that fly through the air without accidentally being propelled by the front end of a Chevy.

Because belief is a marvelous concept, that spoonful of sugar that helps life go down easier. Applied judiciously with a good heart and common sense, belief opens us up to endless possibilities. It steels us to endure life's harsher tests and infuses us with hope, regardless of the cruel reality surrounding us.

Belief can also seduce people into believing that an obese stranger is going to bring a sackful of toys after he squeezes down a chimney. Or it can lead people to think an all-powerful intergalactic dictator named Xenu sacrificed humanity's ancestors by dropping hydrogen bombs on them long ago, as Scientology's belief system goes. It can inspire people to be their best selves or legitimize inhumane, deplorable behavior.

The Church of Scientology would love for A&E viewers to see “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” as a work of fantasy on the same level of “A Year Without a Santa Claus” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The fact that it sent threatening letters to A&E dated as recently as Nov. 2 makes this abundantly clear.

Including excerpts of these letters in the telecast is the network’s way of covering its backside from a legal perspective, a stipulation probably required by the church. Doing so also has precisely the opposite effect of what the Church of Scientology intended, in that they further solidify any outrage a person might feel at hearing allegations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse recounted in Remini’s series.

I use the words “might feel,” by the way, because at this point it’s hard to imagine that anyone obsessed with the secretive inner workings of the Church of Scientology would be shocked at anything Remini’s subjects have to reveal in “Scientology and the Aftermath.” From that famous 2012 Vanity Fair exposé “What Katie Didn’t Know” to Alex Gibney’s compelling 2015 documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” there’s plenty of documentation that exposes the church’s practices.

Knowing that Remini’s series has so vociferously riled up the church has to have goosed the curiosity of the A&E audience far more than if it had done the minimal disavowal and left it at that. Which (insert uninhibited, maniacal laugh track here) would never happen.

But that protest only serves to legitimize “Scientology and the Aftermath,” a series that mimics some of the anxiety-inducing, rough-edged vérité style of such A&E cohorts as “Intervention” and “The Killing Season” and is hosted by the down-to-earth star of “The King of Queens.”

What “Scientology and the Aftermath” lacks in cinematic polish and caliber of celebrity as found in “Going Clear” — such as director Paul Haggis, one of the most famous Hollywood adherents to publicly defect from the church prior to Remini — is somewhat supplanted by Remini’s honest anger and frustration, both of which blaze across the screen in reaction to particularly damning revelations.

Remini’s overall likability is this program’s most valuable asset. She’s a credible guide whose genuine New York-bred personality makes someone picture having her over for a book club or poker night, and her brashness lends an unvarnished humanity to her interactions with her interview subjects.

Prior to coming out against the church in her 2015 bestseller “Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology,” Remini enjoyed CBS sitcom success that propelled her to a new level of stardom. The actress says the church sought to exploit her celebrity in order to recruit others and, according to an interview in The Hollywood Reporter, attempted to quash an unflattering report on “60 Minutes.”

Aided by archival footage of filmed Scientology events and other available church-related videos, Remini briefly explains how she came to be a member of the church and her well-publicized exit, a lengthy ordeal that began with a terse interaction she had at the 2006 wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Although Remini specifies that the series was inspired by public reaction to her book, she also quickly redirects its focus to the show’s professed purpose, which she says is to expose and hold accountable the people who are committing abuses and breaking up families.

And the people interviewed in the first episode of  “Scientology and the Aftermath” are defectors from the organization’s highest levels, including Mike Rinder, the founding director of Scientology International and the former head of its Office of Special Affairs until he left the church in 2007, and Amy Scobee.

Scobee was indoctrinated into the Scientology clergy structure known as Sea Org as a teenager. She went on to serve as the former director of Scientology’s Celebrity Centres for a decade before leaving the church. Contrary to the best efforts of the church’s negative campaigning, the inclusion of Scobee and Rinder’s testimonials lend legitimacy and emotional weight to allegations about some of Scientology’s more damaging practices, such as its requirement that followers cut off contact with family members that have been expelled.

For those who don't believe Scobee’s story, the premiere also features a heartbreaking interview with her mother, Bonny Elliott, from her Seattle hospital bed. The church has plenty to say about Scobee in its correspondence but shows enough savvy to refrain from besmirching the reputation of a dying woman.

The question I was left with after viewing “Scientology and the Aftermath” is, to whom do Remini and her subjects go for action or recourse? For that matter, to whom is this project directed? Church followers aren’t going to watch it. People already consumed by the weirdness of Scientology aren’t going to discover anything they don’t already know. And one episode is enough for the freshly curious to get the gist of the church’s dubious practices. It is hard to fathom anyone other than the most hard-core obsessives sticking around to watch all eight installments of this limited series.

Really, the Church of Scientology’s barrage of letters could be the best publicity Remini’s series could ask for. And the network might not be the entity paying for that extra promotion when all is said and done. Remini is demanding that the church retract the letters, which she calls “libelous,” and pay her $1.5 million in compensation.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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