Snarky tone mars Peter Dinklage’s Netflix series on cult leaders’ playbooks

It’s unsettling how footage of the murderous gurus is accompanied by the actor’s upbeat, tongue-in-cheek narration.

SHARE Snarky tone mars Peter Dinklage’s Netflix series on cult leaders’ playbooks
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Charles Manson, whose tactics are examined in “How to Become a Cult Leader,” is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in 1969.

AP File

On numerous occasions during the six-part Netflix documentary series “How to Become a Cult Leader,” I found myself thinking:

That is truly bizarre.

Of course, any examination of the likes of Charles Manson, the Rev. Jim Jones and Shoko Asahara would elicit such a reaction — but I also found it bizarre and quite frankly a little unsettling and off-putting that this series affects a satirical and even cheeky tone, framing each episode as a chapter in a playbook about … how to become a cult leader.

‘How to Become a Cult Leader’

Untitled

A six-episode series available now on Netflix.

It’s not as if I think anyone would take this approach at face value, but it’s at best a questionable approach to the material. No subject matter should be off-limits to satire, but the juxtaposition between the upbeat, tongue-in-cheek narration from the great Peter Dinklage (who is also an executive producer) and the straightforward documentary visuals comes across as tone-deaf and snarky.

(Dinklage was previously the narrator and an exec producer on the Netflix documentary series “How to Become a Tyrant” in 2021, which applied the same tactic to revisiting the reigns of monsters such as Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin.)

In Episode 1,

we’re plunged into the all-too-familiar story of Charles Manson, who, like many a cult leader, developed a carefully crafted persona which was pure B.S., preyed on a “target demo” consisting of young, impressionable, troubled, emotionally damaged and easily manipulated disciples, put his followers to tests of loyalty and devotion, and had them convinced he was some sort of new messiah.

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Shoko Asahara (pictured in 1995) convinced his followers to attack a Tokyo subway with deadly sarin gas.

AP/Kyodo News

Throughout the series, we hear from journalists, cult experts and former members of various cults, as when former Manson family member Dianne Lake says, “I was lost. I was totally susceptible to someone like Charlie coming into my life. … He could play to your weakness or your need.”

We also see archival footage as well as cleverly rendered animation to augment the journalistically sound reportage. And we’re given a steady serving of handy tactics one should use if one aspires to be a cult leader, including:

  • Get Your Dogma Down
  • Make Noise
  • Embrace Your Calling
  • Expand Your Territory
  • Make Everyone Chip In
  • Establish Credibility
  • Demand Service
  • Seduce the Press

Indeed, cult leaders ranging from Manson to Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple to Jaime Gomez (aka the Buddhafield) to Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite to Shoko Asahara, the leader of the cult behind the deadly Toyko subway sarin attack, have employed many if not all of the above tactics.

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Jim Jones brought his followers from California to Guyana, where he ultimately compelled almost all of them to commit suicide.

Netflix

From nondescript beginnings, they would create a totally artificial persona, build a following of naïve and blindly loyal followers, force those followers into giving up their everyday lives and devoting every waking hour to working for them and spreading their messages — until it all came crashing down, usually in horrific and fatal fashion.

The series is fascinating in that aspect, of culling together so many common traits of these insane sociopaths, but then we hear the voice of Dinklage, offering up such comments as, “[Manson] did become an icon in some circles, but Charlie flamed out before he could truly realize his cult leader potential. Surely YOU can do better. The next chapter of the playbook will show how to turn your cult into a movement that will follow you anywhere.” And, “Jim Jones’ jungle utopia ended in tragedy, giving cult leaders everywhere a bad name. But don’t despair. The playbook offers another path to creating your own heaven on Earth.”

(It’s also a little disappointing that there’s only a cursory mention of the current-day political and social media climate, where conspiracy theories and cult-like devotion to certain leaders abound.)

Maybe the thinking behind “How to Become a Cult Leader” was that we’ve had so many books, documentaries, magazine articles, TV specials, fictionalized movies and series, etc., about these infamous destroyers and the lives they’ve ruined that a satirical approach might feel original and offer insights from a fresh perspective.

Although it didn’t work for me, I want to make it clear there was no point when I felt as if the filmmakers were glorifying these horrible ghouls; in the final episode, we see graphics noting that Manson died in jail, Jones committed suicide, Gomez was exiled, Applewhite committed suicide and Asahara was executed. Turns out the cult leader’s playbook is a surefire recipe for complete and utter disaster.

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