True crime can occasionally lean into salacious details over the stronger substance available. In the case of How to Create a Sex Scandal, one of the first official shows in the Max era, the material appears focused on generating as much shock value as possible. The intent of the documentary appears to place blame on a serial abuser. However, despite only being three episodes long, it drags the audience into a dark place without explaining how these issues arise.
In 2004, a handful of men and women were arrested in Mineola, Texas. These people were accused of starting a pedophile ring at a swinger’s club. To make matters worse, two of those arrested were the parents of the children claiming they were molested. Spurred on by a foster parent, the children made several claims to the police. However, over time, it became apparent the whole story had not been told.
Over the three episodes, we watch a series of talking heads discuss the case. The directorial team gets most of the critical figures on camera to reveal their truths about the case. This includes the three children, who have since grown up to be young adults. The most controversial interviews come with the foster mother Margie Cantrell, who swears her intentions were meant to keep the children safe.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that a race to blame and intimidate leads to much darker truths. For most of the series tries to highlight the importance of taking a step before jumping into believing conspiracies. The sources of disinformation may not even have ill will behind their actions. They may get carried away with what they believe is the right course of action.
On the other hand, How to Create a Sex Scandal warns that some truly do have darker intentions. Some will do anything for money or vengeance. What does it matter if some people go to jail or die when money is on the line? To make matters worse, railroading those without the ability to mount a real defense can be swamped by the justice system. They may have no recourse, especially in areas where criminal justice reform is desperately needed.
While it’s essential for these issues to be brought to light, How to Create a Sex Scandal plays up the case’s fake and highly controversial aspects. It does not begin to unravel until late in the series, and the way the show frames the initial accusations, there’s little reason to doubt them.
Sensationalizing in this way does not help in an environment where claims of “groomers” and pedophilia have become rampant accusations against marginalized groups. Rather than beginning in a way that frames the accusations as coerced actions, we learn this more than halfway through the series. This becomes even more frustrating as journalists and media are intimately involved in the early stages of the documentary. To make matters worse, someone died due to these false accusations.
There’s no double slippery slope when introducing false accusations into a sexual assault case. Yet in How to Create a Sex Scandal, the choice to hide the truth to keep the audience hooked feels irresponsible. To make matters worse, there is far more attention on the false accusations being thrown into the story instead of exploring the mechanisms that explain how it occurred. This either shows a lack of vision over the whole endeavor or a lack of material to build the series around.
While some will enjoy How to Create a Sex Scandal, this feels like a flavor-of-the-week series. Audiences will consume it and move on with their week, but the issues at its core are very real. Without creating a stronger perspective on these events, it leaves this story and series feeling flat.
*this article was edited after publication due to incorrect spelling/wording on an idiom.