Sex, Lies & Scandal’ is worth a commitment

May 22, 2024 4:29 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

Less than a year after Hulu’s Ashley Madison documentary, Netflix settles for seconds with “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal,” a three-part British production that has the advantage of feeling like roughly four documentaries in one.

Part business meltdown, part crime mystery, part media critique, and part “tales of Ashley Madison,” it’s a look at the married-people hookup site that’s plenty salacious and definitely not monotonous.

Founded on the theory that a surprising number of married people were signing up for dating sites, Ashley Madison (taken from two popular girl names) began with the slogan “When monogamy becomes monotony” before its evolution under CEO Noel Biderman to the more in-your-face line, “Life is short. Have an affair.”

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Yet while the company enjoyed explosive subscriber growth, and Biderman became media catnip by making the rounds subjecting himself to the righteous indignation of (mostly outraged) TV interviewers, the dirty secret was that Ashley Madison hadn’t taken the promised steps to protect its data, leaving itself vulnerable to a 2015 hack that exposed thousands of clients.

“It was like gambling with people’s lives,” says Evan Back, a sales executive and strategist who is one of the former employees interviewed.

In one respect, director Toby Paton approaches the new docuseries in a manner that’s very much of a piece with the daytime-TV mentality Biderman successfully exploited at the time from a marketing standpoint, working off the theory that there was no such thing as bad publicity for a site offering the prospect of adulterous hookups made easy.

“Ashley Madison” thus spends a lot of time chronicling a few specific soap-opera-worthy tales of lives that were upended when the hacked information went public, such as the fallout for Sam Rader, a Dallas area Christian vlogger who had secretly signed up, and his wife, Nia.

At the same time, the docuseries both builds a kind of strange suspense toward the hack, on multiple levels, while providing a pointed media dissection of the voyeurism, with a touch of schadenfreude often masquerading as journalism that made this story so irresistible.

As the cherry on top, Paton also devotes a portion of the series to the investigation into the hackers, self-identified as The Impact Team, which didn’t behave like most corporate hackers in the way it presented its demands, leaving lingering questions and speculation regarding its motives.

Put all that together, and “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal” lives up – or perhaps better, down – to its name. Like the ad said, life is short when it comes to committing to another docuseries. Still, people will no doubt be willing to take the leap for a story with such delicious “There but for the grace of God…” overtones.

“Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal” premieres May 15 in Netflix.