It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was once a time when few Americans outside the Celebrity Centre knew what an E-meter was.
For decades, Scientology was known as a mysterious religion popular with Hollywood A-listers including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But in recent years the church, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has spawned a cottage industry of journalistic exposes and jaw-dropping memoirs in which former devotees allege abusive, cult-like behavior and outlandish beliefs.
At this point, Scientology is as much an active religion as it is fodder for the various juicy tell-alls that have familiarized readers of People magazine with once-obscure concepts like Operating Thetans and the Bridge to Total Freedom.
The latest entry in this flourishing sub-genre is “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” Premiering Tuesday on A&E, the eight-part docuseries follows actress and former Scientologist Leah Remini as she meets with other church defectors and listens to their often-harrowing stories.
It arrives on the heels of Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary “Going Clear,” which was based on New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright’s meticulously researched book of the same name, and is a companion piece of sorts to Remini’s memoir, “Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology,” released last year.
While the single episode made available to critics covers little new ground and employs an unsophisticated documentary style, its focus on Scientology’s toll on families is an effective strategy that will likely resonate with many viewers.
Remini, who starred for nine seasons on the popular Kevin James sitcom “The King of Queens,” was once one of Scientology’s most enthusiastic proponents but has become one of its highest-profile celebrity defectors. (She is also an executive producer on “Scientology and the Aftermath.”)
The first episode opens with an abbreviated recap of Remini’s involvement in the church, which she joined as a child and provided a support network for her mother following a painful divorce. As Remini’s career thrived, she became, as she puts it, a “thought leader” in the organization.
With clips of Remini making hyperbolic claims about the power of Scientology — “we are the most ethical group you’re ever going to find,” she gushes in a 1999 interview — the series is frank about her role in promoting and defending the church.
All of which lends greater heft to Remini’s eventual denunciation. Her disillusionment began in 2006 at Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes, where Remini was rebuked for inquiring as to the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige, wife of church leader David Miscavige. After she and her family were submitted to expensive interrogations, she publicly broke with Scientology in 2013.
The premiere episode focuses on the church’s harsh treatment of apostates like Remini and its policy of “disconnection” — shunning friends and family members who’ve left the organization.
It tells the story of former executive Amy Scobee, who joined Sea Org, the church’s quasi-military religious order, as a teenager and for decades barely had any contact with her father. She ascended the ranks and eventually ran the Celebrity Centre where, among other tasks, she was responsible for making sure everyone around Cruise, down to household staff, was a Scientologist.
Scobee walked away from Scientology in 2005, forcing her mother, a still-devout parishioner, to disconnect. Her painful experiences are echoed by Mike Rinder, former spokesperson for the church, who says his greatest regret is introducing his estranged children to Scientology.
“Scientology and the Aftermath” takes a human-interest approach to its subject, barely delving into the origins of the religion or its more bizarre teachings (e.g. Xenu, the prehistoric space tyrant spoofed in a 2005 episode of “South Park”). It’s aimed at relative newcomers, using graphics to define lingo like “suppressive person.”
Unlike Gibney’s “Going Clear,” this series is a strictly basic-cable affair that relies on some regrettable reality-TV conventions. There are hokey re-creations, lots of generic stock footage, an interview with Remini that has the look and feel of a “Real Housewives” confessional and superfluous montages highlighting the drama in episodes ahead.
The show is also punctuated with a truly ridiculous number of disclaimers and directs viewers to a Scientology website that issues strenuous denials regarding allegations.
As the church surely knows firsthand, Remini is an effective ambassador for her cause. Though she moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles as a teenager, she still has the sassy, straight-talking demeanor of an outer-borough New Yorker.
She comes off as authentic, even if “Scientology and the Aftermath” can also seem self-serving. (Her name is in the title, after all.) Remini may have paid a price for speaking out but leaving the church has also undeniably boosted her visibility.
And however well-intentioned Remini seems to be, there’s something a tad ironic about an investigation of a celebrity-driven cult that plays like a star vehicle.
‘Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday