CULT: First Thoughts on CW’s Ode to Creepy, Obsessive Fans

Cult (2013) – Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon – Episode 1, “You’re Next” – Starring Jessica Lucas, Matt Davis, Alona Tal, Kadeem Hardison, and Robert Knepper.

Apparently, cults are to 2013 what real world fairy tales were to 2011.

One of the really nice things about Hulu is that occasionally you get a TV show before your TV gets your TV show. Such is the case with CULT, CW’s new show from Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon. I watched it this afternoon, a full week before it makes its network debut on February 19th, and clearly the CW lets it out early in an attempt to build some good vibes for the show. It’s a smart move if your show is a good one and CULT is …

Well, it’s a mixed bag, to be honest, but it’s decent enough for me to add to the Hulu queue for the time being.

The premise is a good one, utilizing the show-within-a-show concept: we tune in to watch CULT on the CW, and people in CULT tune in to watch Cult on the CW. O’Bannon is interested in exploring the blurring of lines between reality and entertainment that consumes a certain segment of fandom. Already in the first episode, CULT touches on chat rooms, fan sites, and cosplay. The show is clearly aimed at exploring the most dangerous possibilities the most dangerous aspects of fandom could concoct, so this show has a dark vibe to it. We’re not talking about Bronies or shippers here, either, but people who appear to have an equal love of The X-Files and Lost and a desire to take the fantasy into reality in order to do bad things to them.

It’s that last bit that the show needs to crank up the creep factor. What little we’ve seen of the fans here aren’t descendants of Russell Crowe’s Beautiful Mind dissecting every aspect of a show to try and figure out what a symbol on a truck that drives by our main characters means, but something closer to Scream/Stab, where fan obsessive leads to dangerous consequences.

Unlike FOX’s The Following, which gives us a Wannabe Hannibal Lecter and his flock of needy grown-up children, the first episode of CULT keeps us in the dark as to what’s going on. It takes its storytelling cues from The X-Files more than anything else, where our male and female investigators are trying to penetrate a shroud of darkness.

Which is reinforced by having almost everything spooky take place at night.

It’s sort of effective here. By giving us both the “real” story of Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) searching for his brother, who goes missing in episode 1 after acting all weird with Jeff. His brother has had some issues (including drug abuse) over the years and Jeff is at the end of his rope with him, especially when he starts spouting off about this new TV show and people being out to get him.

After his brother goes missing (complete with one last creepy phone call to Jeff) and Jeff finds a bloody chair in his brother’s apartment, he starts watching the show and gets sucked down the rabbit hole. He decides to stop by the set, pretending to still be a reporter for The Washington Post (where he used to work before being fired for allegedly faking a source), and as he’s getting kicked out, his pleas are overheard by Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), who works in production on Cult, and together they start investigating the missing brother.

When the show was setting up Jeff dismissively rejecting his brother’s pleas for help, Skye was seen asking one of the show’s producers about the show’s creepy fans, and we later learn through a phone call from one of her friends that Skye is becoming a bit obsessive about the people who are obsessive about the show she works on.

In terms of tone, CULT is pretty successful – again, it’s totally using the X-Files’ playbook, going to creepy places at creepy times of day to have creepy things happen. On the interior show, we follow two detectives (lead female and her male sidekick) who are looking for a missing sister, which obviously mirrors the show we’re watching. Besides a gender swap, what also separates the two versions of CULT is that the female cop on the interior show is an ex-cult member, so she’s totally swallowed the red pill, while Jeff goes from non-believer to confused believer over the course of the episode.

Jeff falls in line pretty quick, which is a conceit given to the show’s formula, I’m guessing. It still rings a bit false, and it’s not the only place where the show trades smarts for plot or mood. Jeff finds a secret CD in a place where, as he says, only he could find it. That place? Between two glued together pages of a journal. Easy, the Riddler. As viewers, we can tell who’s in the CULT cult, because they always stare at people with creepy eyes. There’s a female cop investigating the disappearance of Jeff’s brother, but as you can guess in the first 2 seconds she’s on screen, she’s a cult member, too. With her, you don’t figure it out because of her creepy eyes, but because of the tattoo she has.

On her forearm.

Skye is willing to help Jeff because her father was a newsman who went missing, and she feels no one should ever go missing or something. It’s a little weird that she jumps in Jeff’s car when they head to a seedy motel in the woods, but then after they watch his brother’s lady friend blow her brains out, Skye gets a cab ride home. It’s not Jeff’s fault the woman committed suicide, but Jeff seems to get some kind of silent blame.

Of the two leads, it’s Jessica Lucas’ Skye that’s the stronger half. Smart, inquisitive, gorgeous … I kept expecting to hear the TARDIS land so the Doctor could snatch her up and bring her to a better show. Matt Davis’ Jeff is supposed to carry the show, but he’s a bit empty. CULT is on the CW, so you would imagine most of their fans are internet savvy (because they’re either young or cyber stalking Blake Lively), and thus don’t need a character like Jeff acting dumb and asking questions so the show can explain how things work. There are times when I can’t help but roll my eyes at Jeff, who seems utterly bewildered at the idea that people could be fans of a show and want to talk about it on the internet.

What we have, then, is an uneven but not terrible show that succeeds more on mood than story. The best parts are when CULT and Cult begin to merge together, and I hope once we get past the opening episode the show settles into a formula that gives us decent stories and lots of mood. I don’t love what I’ve seen, but I like the promise enough to stick around for a few episodes and give it a shot.