Kristin Kreuk’s Canadian investigative drama, Burden of Truth, premiered on the CW last week. On the show, the Vancouver-born Kreuk taps into a long history of fictional city dwellers cast out into sleepy towns to crack the big case, only to come face to face with their own demons. When Kreuk’s Joanna Hanley, a hotshot attorney marooned in small-town Millwood, isn’t asking for a wine list at the local pub or getting called out for wearing somber sheath dresses at a diner, she’s representing a big pharmaceutical company that may or may not have irreparably harmed a growing group of high schoolers. Hanley’s mission is to prove that the teenage girls who have recently started twitching and fainting around town aren’t experiencing side effects from a human papillomavirus vaccine. While she only plans to stay in Millwood—technically her hometown—for long enough to impress big pharma with her legal prowess, by the end of the pilot Hanley is teaming up with a local lawyer to find out what’s really hurting the girls.
The 35-year-old actress has done a smattering of interviews around the CW summer premiere, discussing her role as executive producer and star of the show with headlines like “Kristin Kreuk talks her strong and passionate character.” What these articles don’t cover is NXIVM, the sex cult that seized international attention this year with the arrest of leader Keith Raniere and Kreuk’s Smallville co-star, Allison Mack. Mack, whose charges include sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor, was reportedly introduced to NXIVM in 2006 by Kreuk. Mack went on to allegedly become a key recruiter and “master” within DOS, an all-female NXIVM sorority where slaves were “branded” and, according to legal documents, ordered to have sex with Raniere. When The Daily Beast reached out for an interview with Kreuk, a publicist for the CW responded, “We are not answering any questions about Allison Mack or NXIVM so I would need to make sure this is only about the series.”
Kreuk, who has not been accused of any involvement in DOS, did issue a statement on NXIVM. She expressed her deep embarrassment at having associated with NXIVM, otherwise known as Executive Success Programs, and explained that she took her first “intensive” when she was about 23, which she “understood to be a self-help/personal growth course that helped me handle my previous shyness.”
“I left about five years ago,” she continued, “and had minimal contact with those who were still involved. The accusations that I was in the ‘inner circle’ or recruited women as ‘sex slaves’ are blatantly false. During my time I never experienced any illegal or nefarious activity. I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out about DOS.”
She concluded, “I hope that the investigation leads to justice for all of those affected.”
Kreuk was listed in a 2012 Times Union article about NXIVM’s “rich, powerful, and influential” members. Former NXIVM publicist turned whistleblower Frank Parlato wrote in a 2018 post that, in addition to recruiting friends like Mack, Kreuk had reportedly been a NXIVM coach. “As NXIVM’s former publicist, I know Kreuk was used as NXIVM’s star recruitment tool,” Parlato wrote. “She was a draw for those who wanted to meet her. She made herself available to recruit. I recall speaking with one radio show host who was eager to meet Kreuk and agreed to promote a NXIVM a-Cappella event—if he could have Kreuk on the show. I set it up and he plugged the hell out of it, as I recall.”
Of course, it makes sense that Kreuk, who again has not been implicated in any of the cult’s crimes, doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life talking about the accused sex traffickers she used to associate with. However, given the overlap between the real-life scandal Kreuk’s become associated with and the central themes of her new series, those banned questions could have led to a fascinating conversation. As if Kreuk’s character’s mission to protect an army of vulnerable young women wasn’t topical enough, this pilot seems to suggest that there’s something dark going on beneath the surface—some sort of psychic distress or underlying trauma that’s terrorizing the young women of Millwood.
Burden of Truth feels like a show you’ve already seen. It opens on a small-town girls’ soccer game, lined with anxious parents and wholesome cheerleaders. The unsettling music and too-bright grass hints at something not quite right, and the scene culminates in a full-on seizure by the sidelines. The cheerleader’s fit spreads across town, and soon a homeroom’s worth of high school girls are falling, twitching and stuttering. More or less the entire town is convinced that the teenagers are having negative reactions to the human papillomavirus vaccine, which leads to Joanna Hanley driving back into her hometown with a suitcase full of off-brand Olivia Pope work clothes, determined to protect her client’s reputation and buy off a bunch of sick girls.
Once Hanley returns to Millwood, she begins to suffer a crisis of conscience. In a series of increasingly tight close-ups, we watch the lawyer weigh her extreme guilt and curiosity against her desire to return to a place where you can order sushi on Seamless and there’s more than one kind of white wine. Eventually, disturbed when her waitress collapses and haunted by the words of a teen who she sweet-talked into taking a settlement, Hanley storms into the local law firm demanding a battery of CT scans.
Kristin Kreuk does an admirable job forcing life into a character who’s been tasked with delivering lines like “litigation is war” and “my retainer is usually 10K, but buy me a burger and I’m yours for an hour.” There’s the requisite hometown love interest and secret past—apparently, the Hanleys’ flight from Millwood was more acrimonious than Joanna remembers. But things don’t get really interesting until the end of the pilot, when it’s revealed that the newest victim didn’t get the vaccine, citing the fact that she and her girlfriend have only ever been with each other. This fun lesbian-teen-romance subplot is also a boon for Hanley, who is now certain that the HPV vaccine isn’t to blame for the sick girls. But then, what is?
While the show’s original network, CBC, refers to the series as “an Erin-Brockovich style legal drama,” it’s also evocative of real life cases like Le Roy and El Carmen de Bolívar. In El Carmen de Bolívar, over 200 teenage girls exhibited symptoms including fainting spells, severe headaches, numb hands, nausea and convulsions. Parents blamed Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, while some authorities “hinted” at “a rare case of mass hysteria.”
Carol Morley, the writer and director of The Falling, was so fascinated by instances of “mass hysteria” that she decided to “make a feature film about a mass psychogenic outbreak set in a girls’ school.” In a Guardian essay, Morley explained that, “For an outbreak to happen there is usually a trigger, some kind of stress factor. It could be a school examination or an emotional event, such as an illness or a death. It could stem from a belief in an evil spirit or ghost. Triggers are often environmental, such as people reacting to smog, or an odour—or even the perception of an odour—or the threat of contamination in water or food. A true mass hysteria event would result in no laboratory findings that could link it to an organic cause, and so would be viewed as originating from the mind, therefore psychogenic in origin”, adding, “Mass psychogenic illness should always be suspected when it selectively affects adolescent schoolgirls.”
It will be interesting to see if Burden of Truth takes on those “stress factors” or themes of underlying trauma, as Kreuk fights to save the fictional women and to keep her own past out of the headlines.