Hulu’s The Path, which debuts its first two episodes today, centers on a religion that is obviously based on Scientology and whose resemblance to Scientology will never be admitted publicly. This is exasperating, of course, but given a legal history that could best be described as “trigger happy,” it’s also understandable. And it’s an approach that has also been taken by several other depictions of the faith over the years. Despite the institution’s own best efforts, it’s proven an enduring object of fascination in the culture, earning straightforward takedowns and indirect examinations alike. We’ve collected the most interesting results of culture’s enduring fascination with Scientology, arranged from oblique to winking to impressively blatant.
Late into the Netflix comedy’s second season, BoJack’s perennial couch tenant Todd gets swept into a cult with tiered levels, an enigmatic founder, and a weird affinity for cruise ships. But remember, as BoJack himself repeatedly reminded us: this was about improv and not at all about Scientology. (Spoiler: it’s about both! Although more improv devotees probably watched and felt weird about it than IRL Scientologists.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 drama is less about cult-as-institution than the cult’s building block: the magnetic, symbiotic relationship between a leader in search of a follower and a believer in search of a belief. Singular as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix’s performances are, however, the inspiration for postwar messiah Lancaster Dodd and the “Cause” he establishes is unmistakable, right down to the auditing sessions.
Saturday Night Live
It’s a simple joke, but a razor-sharp one: combining the hokey but innocent-enough aesthetic of Scientology videos of yore with the not-so-innocent fates that befell once-prominent members. Of course, SNL tweaked the name to Neurotology (plus “Dianetics” is now “Diametrics!”) and added the comic stylings of Kate McKinnon to help the medicine go down, but the commentary is still pretty obvious. Side note: where’s Shelly Miscavige?!
Jane the Virgin
This is Jane the Virgin we’re talking about, so the Scientology references, however explicit, aren’t really meant as exposé; they’re an entirely believable character quirk of Jane’s dad, famed telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega. During an experiment with Scientology, Rogelio confessed some secrets during an auditing session that his ex-wife proceeds to hold over his head. It’s more of a plot device mixed with a light jab at celebrity culture than a straight-up confrontation. Speaking of which…
And with South Park, we cross the line from “playful allusion” to “openly combative.” In the infamous 2005 episode “Trapped in the Closet,” which led Scientologist cast member Isaac Hayes to walk away from the show, a plot line where Stan joins the group provides the setup for an utterly deadpan animated sequence that lays out Scientology’s mythology, captioned throughout with, “This is what Scientologists actually believe.” (It’s based on a document given to Operating Thetan III members.) To cap it all off, Stan breaks the fourth wall and literally dares the Church to sue.
The real question is not so much, “Why would a Ryan Murphy show get into Scientology?” as, “How has Ryan Murphy not made an entire show about Scientology (only for it to go down in legal flames) yet?” Nip/Tuck basically jumped the shark in its pilot, but a few more stunts later, two of the show’s more damaged and impressionable characters temporarily get clear, an arc Murphy intended to be a more earnest exploration of Scientology’s appeal than the likes of South Park.
Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary is reportedly less insane and packed with allegations than the Lawrence Wright book on which it’s based. But there’s something about the way Gibney plays them out, complete with real footage of both Scientology apostates and actual gatherings presided over by David Miscavige himself, that packs an extra punch, balancing expertly between individual stories of disillusionment and illustrations of Scientology’s institutional power, exercised through lawsuits and the wealth that funds them.