This week, HBO Max officially transitioned into Max and one of the first new premieres is a true crime documentary that fits in with the streamer’s unscripted-centric ethos. Let’s take a look at How To Create A Sex Scandal.
HOW TO CREATE A SEX SCANDAL: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Shots of desolate suburban streets and homes are accompanied by a harrowing news voiceover: a group of men and women were arrested for forcing kids under the age of 7 into performing at a local swingers club.
The Gist: In the early 2000s, foster parents Margie and John Cantrell moved from California to Texas to have a peaceful retirement, but upon arriving in Mineola, Texas, they agreed to foster a few more children. Hunter, Shelby, and Carly were siblings placed in Child Protective Services away from allegedly abusive and drug-addict parents, and later placed in the Cantrell’s care. Soon after, Margie was looking to buy a property where a former swinger’s club had stood when the children reportedly claimed that it had been a site for sexual abuse and rape. But How To Create A Sex Scandal argues that that never happened and that the children were coerced into putting their own parents behind bars.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? There’s no shortage of docu series centered on ripped-from-the-headlines stories, but the crux of this one might remind you of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which explored the systemic issues that led to the abuse and eventual death of its titular child. How To Create A Sex Scandal deviates in its story, but still questions the external forces that lead to these outcomes.
Our Take: How To Create A Sex Scandal is immediately captivating: not just because of its subject matter but because of the participation from almost everyone involved in the scandal — even the ones who may be lying about the truth. The first hour is straightforward, and even the twist at the end is expected, but it sets up an absolutely fascinating story about deceit, coercion, and the fallibility of the current foster care system.
Directors Julian P. Hobbs and Berndt Mader set the scene by explaining the Mineola, Texas backdrop, touted in the miniseries as a “God-fearing” town and a straight ahead typical conservative community who are scandalized by the idea of a swinger’s club in their vicinity. Even as the documentary shifts its focus to the scandal in which a pedophilic sex ring was uncovered by a foster mother, it never loses sight of the type of conservatism at the center of the story that deems anything “different” as a threat.
In that, How To Create A Sex Scandal is a treatise on class and identity-based politics in our country, and showcases the lengths that people will go to for money, touting God’s name all the way to the bank.
Sex and Skin: Though the topic is centered on sex, the documentary doesn’t recreate any scenes of abuse.
Parting Shot: Margie walks toward the camera while a bombshell allegation about her and her husband is unleashed.
Sleeper Star: Texas Monthly executive editor Michael Hall, who first broke the story, appears throughout and gives small flashes of evidence that we should be questioning everything we are hearing.
Most Pilot-y Line: “I was told, ‘keep your mouth shut in this town. Don’t make any waves.’ I made waves,” the foster mother named Margie Cantrell says early on describing how the “scandal” was uncovered.
Our Call: STREAM IT. A three-part docuseries, How To Create A Sex Scandal turns the tables on what a true crime documentary typically is.
Radhika Menon (@menonrad) is a TV-obsessed writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on Vulture, Teen Vogue, Paste Magazine, and more. At any given moment, she can ruminate at length over Friday Night Lights, the University of Michigan, and the perfect slice of pizza. You may call her Rad.