The CW’s new meta-mystery Cult brings us into a world that most visitors to this website happen to know pretty well: The realm of overly obsessive pop culture fandom. It’s a sometimes fun, sometimes scary, always interesting shadowland where enthusiasm for fantasy takes the most peculiar forms: Ardent ‘shipping, colorful cosplay, mad theorizing by know-it-all bloggers who give themselves fake PhDs and are rarely correct about anything. (Such hacks! Such frauds!) Created by Farscape’s Rockne S. O’Bannon, a scribe with genre smarts who clearly knows much about the benefits and beautiful weirdness of fandom, Cult imagines a culture where a show called “Cult” airs on The CW and seems to be having a seriously adverse if not deadly affect on its most ardent viewers. (Like we said: Meta.) Cult’s strategy for conceptualizing and depicting the amorphous virtual reality of everyday TV fandom – a tough task, for sure – contained some good jabs at geeks like me, but was pretty goofy all the same. Apparently, “Cult”-ists congregate in a subterranean cyber-café called Fan.Dom.Ain. After watching episodes together (in strangely polite and intense silence) (where’s the Twittery banter-commentary?), they immediately flip open their laptops like race car drivers to their vehicles and start researching the Web for clues that can decode the show’s game-construct narrative (or what they perceive as such). All this, plus drinks served by model-cute waitresses. Where the hell was this place back when I was trying to solve Lost?
Cult might be an easier show to watch than it is to describe. I mean this as a compliment: The premise is admirably complex, but the storytelling in the pilot was clear and compelling. Our point of entry was the show within the show, a thriller with similarities to Fox’s The Following. (Nice timing.) “Cult” – an acclaimed drama in its rookie year that has quickly developed a strong, solid but not yet large following (in other words: a cult hit) — tells the story of a LAPD detective Kelly Collins (Alona Tal) who is searching for her missing sister. She suspects they’ve been taken by a menacing, charismatic cult leader named Billy Grimm (an arresting Robert Knepper), whom Kelly knows well: She was once part of Grimm’s cult – and once Grimm’s lover. Grimm claims to be just your average, ordinary, completely innocent prophet-messiah… armed with a knife and who resides on a rural compound surrounded by devoted disciples who will live and die for him. But Grimm acknowledges that his influence is spreading beyond his ranch (he’s got computer whizzes/market researchers tracking his impact on the world), and he has no control over the behavior of his freaky acolytes out in the urban wilds. Or so he says. (Note: Tal and Knepper also play the actors who play Kelly and Grimm, Marti Gerritsen and Roger Reeves; future episodes promise to unpack their thespian alter-egos.) (Like we said: Easier to watch than explain.)
As Cult opens, “Cult” has just aired its 13th episode, and one of its super-fans, Nate Sefton (James Pizzinato), has made a chilling discovery: He has seen something in/solved something about “Cult” and “made contact” with “them,” a seemingly sinister cabal that either runs “Cult” or exploits “Cult” for fiendish purposes. (So… advertisers?) Nate tries to explain this conspiracy theory to his older brother, Jeff (Matt Davis), a former Washington Post reporter whose greatest success also produced his downfall: He wrote an expose that put away some truly crooked cops, but he fabricated a source to do it. Jeff – now trying to rebuild his career at a small Los Angeles paper – can’t be bothered with Nate’s hoo-ha, and more, suspects that his troubled little brother is back on drugs. But then Nate goes missing, leaving behind a bloodstained chair and a clue trail, and Jeff begins to wonder. He has an ally in Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), a “Cult” research assistant, who is beginning to question some of the stranger aspects of the show that keeps her employed. Among them: The fact that no one can see or is allowed to meet with “Cult’s” creator, a writer named Steven Rae. Skye is equally obsessed with a certain secret subset of “Cult” websites that may or may not be managed by the show itself.
In the best possible version of Cult, the separate narratives – fictional Kelly’s investigation into fictional Billy Grimm; Jeff and Skye’s investigation into Nate’s disappearance and the “Cult” TV show – should be equally riveting entertainments unto themselves. Put another way: For Cult to work, “Cult” really has to rock us the way it rocks its fans. It’s not quite there yet. I get the enthusiasm for Billy Grimm, because Robert Knepper is fantastic, as always, at playing powerful, complex, scary super-creeps. The rest of “Cult” needs to rise to the level of his performance. But one thing that doesn’t need to change is the effectively trippy interplay between the narratives. I loved watching “Cult” mess with Jeff’s head. Just one example: Jeff filling up his car at the gas station, watching the commercial for “Cult” on the outdoor TV monitor, Billy Grimm seemingly speaking right to him: “You’re next.” I also dug the 3-D glasses, the disc, the red car, the increasingly unnerving business with the line “Well, hey, these things just snap right off” – all these bits from the fictional world of “Cult,” crossing over into Jeff’s world, reorienting his perception and understanding of his world.
But I think he should stay away from Fan.Dom.Ain. Kinda goofy.
Cult wants to be many things at once, and one of the reasons why I intend to keep watching is that pilot showed signs that it might be able to do all of them pretty well. I see the potential for an involving crypto-thriller. I see the potential for an offbeat allegory about the want for community and meaning and how we go looking for both in all the right and wrong places, from family to friends, cults to TV shows. (Billy Grimm: “They come because they want to belong, to be part of the unconditional love and acceptance I offer.”) I see the potential for a clever satire of TV business and commentary shows like itself. (One of my favorite bits: The network exec — a full-of-himself blowhard who liked to brag that he was the one at Fox who kept Joss Whedon on the air for more than a season — who wanted to “get creative” with elusive “Cult” creator Steven Rae and figure out ways to make “Cult” more than just a cult classic in the making.) I like the idea that Cult is a metaphor for how we can lose ourselves – for better and much worse – in our fantasies. To borrow a quote from Warren Ellis’ great comic book series Planetary: “We’re in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see. Sometimes we fear it’s taking us over. Sometimes we beg to be taken over by it. Sometimes we want to see what’s inside it.”
My theory-prediction for how it all ends? A blend of my two favorite cult classics, The Prisoner and Nowhere Man. Jeff scores an audience with the man behind the curtain, “Cult” creator Steven Rae, and discovers… himself.
What did you make of Cult?