justin matchick looks at the new CW program…
Cult is weird. Cult is entertaining. Cult is silly. Cult is promising. Cult is a lot of things, but in the end it’s an enjoyable thriller that works best when you decide to forgo any pretense of drama or high tension and just decide you want some cool twists and spooky coincidences. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Cult stars Matthew Davis (The Vampire Diaries) as former newspaper reporter Jeffery Dean Sefton. Jeff’s brother Nate is a former drug addict obsessed with the new television show “Cult.” Nate believes that people from the show are actually out to get him, having explored deeply into the background of the show and finding numerous hidden and subliminal messages. One day Nate suddenly goes missing and Jeff, with the help of “Cult” production assistant Skye (Jessica Lucas), sets out to uncover the mysteries of the show on his own and find his brother.
Cult brings with it a long and weird development history. Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon, who also brought us sci-fi shows like Farscape and seaQuest DSV, the show has been languishing in development hell for over half a decade. The show was deep into development back in 2005 when it starred White Collar’s Matt Bomer and was slated to air on The WB. But when The WB and UPN merged to form The CW, Cult was cut from the schedule for being too dark and too weird for the time. Now here we are nearly eight years later, and Cult still seems almost too weird for its own good.
The show within a show actually takes up a lot more of the episode than I had expected. Our Cult shows full scenes and sequences from the fake “Cult,” which is apparently a very cheesy and cliché show about a former cult member turned cop (Veronica Mars’ Alona Tal) who is still obsessed with taking down her former commune. This cult is led by Billy Grimm, an enigmatic figure made all the creepier thanks to a spooky performance by Robert Knepper (Prison Break). Knepper nails the sense that Billy is a simple man on the surface with far deeper and more disturbing intentions. Of course, all of this is just him playing an actor, a performance of a performance. The show gives small hints that Billy might be a force that extends beyond the realm of a television show, but it’s still far too early to tell what it could lead to.
There are thousands of die-hard fans of “Cult”, and they show their appreciation of the show with exuberant fervor. Cosplaying, role-playing, internet chat sites, fan message boards, you name it; the fanbase for the show runs deep. When scenes from the show begin to play themselves out in reality, Jeff is left to wonder if it is all the work of over-enthusiastic fans or a force more sinister. There are moments like when the soundtrack of the show “Cult” morphs and merges into the soundtrack we are actually hearing for Cult that do a good job of twisting our expectations of where the show ends and reality begins. Even when the credits roll for “Cult,” we find that the show actually is airing on The CW in that universe, and the production companies on that show have almost the exact same logos of those that are actually making Cult. These little details help to further confuse the viewer and make them question what parts of the show are just the show and what parts are seemingly starting to seep into reality.
Cult is of course not without its fair share of troubles. The show within a show is purposefully clunky and formulaic, a parody of cop dramas and thrillers of this ilk. But Cult, ironically enough, features way too much of “Cult.” The show slowly grinds to a halt when we are seeing scenes from the show, dragging on for far longer than I would have liked and shedding far less light on things than the real world action. Aside from Knepper, there aren’t really any performances that stand out either. None are particularly bad, but they do little to elevate the material they are given and as such we have to rely solely on the twists of the plot to keep us interested.
I had heard a lot of buzz about Cult, almost all of it bad. Many critics had it, along with Do No Harm and Zero Hour, among the worst of the midseason premiers this year. But I feel Cult stands head and shoulders above those shows and even some of the longer lasting and more critically acclaimed shows of late. Sure it may get too silly at moments, and the sometimes the connections between the show and real world are a bit forced, but if you want a show that sets out to purely entertain you, then you can do far, far worse.