The last several years have seen a spike in documentaries about cults, with HBO leading the charge. The premium cable network has taken on Scientology (Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief), NXIVM (The Vow), QAnon (Q: Into The Storm), and the “cult of cults,” Heaven’s Gate. That last one was produced by HBO’s streaming arm, HBO Max, which is also behind the newest entry in this growing oeuvre. The Way Down: God, Greed, And The Cult Of Gwen Shamblin is a five-part docuseries about the Remnant Fellowship Church and its enthralling leader, whose zeal sent her after 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—had to deal with a major curveball before their series was released. On May 29, a plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Tennessee, killing its seven passengers, including Remnant Fellowship founder Gwen Shamblin Lara and her husband, Joe Lara. Zenovich told The New York Times the team hadn’t managed to interview Shamblin Lara for the docuseries before her death, nor had they expected to; as seen in archived footage, the weight-loss guru turned self-styled prophet proved to be a most testy interviewee when subjected to any scrutiny. Asked about some of her beliefs—she compared, almost cheerfully, the forced starvation of incarcerated people with portion control—Shamblin Lara either turned defensive or was rushed off the set by one of her handlers.
Zenovich and Cappello folded the plane crash and the question of succession in Remnant Fellowship Church’s leadership into their docuseries, which is being released in two parts: The first three episodes dropped September 30 on HBO Max, with the remaining two installments scheduled for next spring. This late-hour pivot is felt throughout the series (or at least, the three episodes that are now available), which commits the same mistake of many streaming shows, scripted and unscripted—kicking the narrative can down the road and asking viewers to wait for some big payoff.
The Way Down begins promisingly enough, jumping back in time from the plane crash to a deposition from May 2019, when a defiant Shamblin Lara let criticism of her church bounce off her lacquered face and hair. As repulsive as her ideals are shown to be, Shamblin Lara is an undeniably compelling subject for an investigation, her towering ’do and haughty speech creating an aura of mystique around her (not to mention, she literally has “sham” in her name). How did a former member of the Church Of Christ, which was exceptionally oppressive for its female congregants, become the leader of her own church? Especially when the foundation of her weight loss program, Weigh Down, was built on simple portion control, information that was already widely available when she launched in the 1990s?
Zenovich and Cappello set out to answer those questions, finding misogyny in evangelism and our appearance-obsessed culture in equal measure. They build their docuseries on interviews of former Remnant Fellowship members, including Gina Graves and Teri Phillips—who joined Shamblin Lara’s church after first being indoctrinated into her weight-loss program—as well as cult interventionist Rev. Rafael Martinez and investigative journalist/attorney Paul Morantz. In lieu of talking heads with Shamblin Lara (or any senior member of church leadership), there’s extensive footage of Weigh Down videos and conferences, as well as clips from depositions of the diet guru.
Tracking Shamblin Lara’s ascendancy makes for gripping TV—one interviewee marvels at her ability to establish what’s essentially matrilineage in her church, given her upbringing in the Church Of Christ. The Way Down avoids painting Shamblin Lara as some kind of Southern evangelical girlboss, though; her hypocrisy and her organization’s exclusionary nature is frequently called out. Helen Byrd, one of the few Black members of Remnant Fellowship, scoffs at Shamblin Lara holding 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 the story threads that are scattered across the first three episodes; there are so many time jumps and new players introduced. The Way Down follows the model of fraud/true-crime docuseries like Tiger King, doling out its reveals and using an emphatic score to punctuate its twists and hint at even more to come. Too often, though, the series abandons a thread to throw another into the mix, or get overlapping anecdotes from ex-Remnant Fellowship members. The story of the Wingerds, whose daughter Delaney ultimately married into Remnant Fellowship, is stretched out over three episodes. Theirs is an undoubtedly upsetting tale, but it’s almost undermined by the insistence on frequent breaks to dial up the tension.
The life and death of Josef Smith, who was murdered in 2003 by his parents Joseph and Sonya Smith, is practically tacked on to the end of the second episode. Joseph and Sonya were members of Remnant Fellowship Church; they adopted the church’s guidelines regarding corporal punishment, which were espoused by Shamblin Lara, as evinced in one of the many tapes distributed by her organization. Remnant Fellowship paid for the Smiths’ legal defense and maintained a website declaring their innocence. Though the Smiths were found guilty of murder, the prosecution never sought to outright link Remnant Fellowship to their crimes.
This vein is mostly left untapped—there isn’t much contemporary commentary about this kind of brutality being levied at the most vulnerable members of Remnant Fellowship, or how the Smith family interacted with the primarily white membership, or how Black teens like Autumn are coping since leaving the church. Instead, The Way Down sticks to more clear-cut stories, like the contentious custody battle between Natasha Pavlovich and Joe Lara, or turns back to footage of Shamblin Lara proselytizing about how her congregants’ appearances were a direct reflection of their righteousness.
It’s a pretty common pitfall for TV series: an abundance of ideas or stories creates rubbernecking, and ultimately, a sense of dissatisfaction. HBO also seems spurred on by the growing interest in documentaries about cults (gee, wonder why), but in its rush to supply the demand, it’s produced more of a curiosity than a fulsome exploration. The remaining two episodes will cover the aftermath of the plane crash, and the rise of Shamblin Lara’s successors. They might tie together the threads that unspooled in every direction in the first half of the series, but they seem just as likely to diffuse its focus further. The Way Down: God, Greed, And The Cult Of Gwen Shamblin doesn’t do much more with its litany of subjects than recite them.