Proving that shows about a show within a show usually collapse under their own weight, The CW's new drama Cult follows an unnecessarily convoluted mystery involving disappearances related to a fictional television show about a cult, entitled Cult, that has inspired a cult-like following. The part of this whole scenario that's hardest to swallow is that this popular program-within-a-program supposedly airs on The CW, a self-congratulatory pat on the back from the network to itself. Creating a fictional TV network would have been less ostentatious and more believable.
Too often we see television networks going back to tired old procedurals, primetime soaps, and reality shows, so give credit to The CW and creator Rockne O'Bannon (Farscape) for devising a unique concept and actually putting it on the air. The unfortunate issue is that the story, characters, and acting in the fictional Cult are generally superior to that of the "real" Cult, which follows a disgraced newspaper journalist searching for his brother, a hardcore fan of the show who goes missing in the series premiere. Aiding him in his quest is a production assistant on the show who has been researching some of the more extreme corners of Cult's fandom, and together they explore the underground subculture that has sprouted up as a result of the series.
The main characters, played by Matt Davis (The Vampire Diaries) and Jessica Lucas (Melrose Place), are stiff and wooden, spouting inane dialogue that aims to clobber the viewer over the head with the idea that the fictional Cult is the equivalent of the cult phenomenon Lost, only with a much darker twist. Why anyone woulddevelop an obsession with this particular show is never adequately explained, though. Robert Knepper (Prison Break) does a solid job in his dual role as the cult leader on the show, Billy Grimm, and the actor who portrays him, Roger Reeves, but there's nothing that suggests how this show would inspire such devotion.
Maybe that's the point. As someone who only watched a couple of episodes of Lost in the middle of its run on ABC, the series was impenetrable to outsiders by that point and I didn't understand the appeal. We have all felt that way about certain shows that others rave about; for me, it's Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad that I can't crack. Perhaps Cult is forcing us to examine how and why some shows garner such rabid fans, many of whom spend hours online discussing or reading about their favorite series. Fringe and The Walking Dead have done that for me in recent years, but there are other people who just can't get into them.
We're getting off topic, though, and that's easy to do because Cult is an average offering at best. The central concept of a TV show like FOX's The Following influencing its audience to murderously recreate scenes from the show is an idea that sounds intriguing on paper, but fails in execution. A good example is the seedy underground club where hardcore fans apparently gather to "watch their favorite shows" and chat furiously on the internet. In written form, you could probably conjure up something far less cliche and cheesy in your imagination than the set design put forth here that just reinforces how silly it all is.
Speaking of silly, how about that shocking reveal of the Cult tattoo on the wrist of the police detective near the end of the episode? The dramatic fashion in which she pulled her sleeve back down was fantastic unintentional comedy. Doesn't she ever wear short sleeves? If the Cult cult members are so concerned about people discovering their identities, why do they place the tattoo on such a visible part of the body? I can just picture her walking around holding her sleeve down when it's windy out, or wearing a sweat-stained long-sleeved shirt on a hot California summer day.
There's also the looming plotline involving the enigmatic creator of the show, Steven Rae, whom nobody — presumably including the network executives who bought the show — has ever met. Is it standard practice in the TV industry for a network to produce a show without ever meeting the creator in person? If that's the case, why would anybody move to Los Angeles?
In short, I won't be joining The CW's Cult. The performances and the writing are subpar across the board, and the schizophrenic nature of flipping between the show and the show-within-a-show muddles the narrative. The cold open left me wanting to follow the characters in the fictional Cult rather than the cardboard CW models that populate the main cast, and I ended up not caring about any of them or the ridiculous plot devices involving DVRs and social media. An A for effort and kudos for trying something new, but this Cult won't be inspiring the passionate devotion it has written for itself. Rather than serving as a commentary on the nature of fandom and cryptic series like Lost, it's just another show with a messy and confusing mythology.
FINAL GRADE: C