The late 1990s, beginning with Kevin Williamson’s Scream, were populated by movies that were about young people taking horror movies too seriously or urban legends too seriously; these movies offered insight into young America by studying its consumption of media and commenting on its consumption of America, either arguing for or against the media’s influence on violent behavior. The CW’s new series, Cult, which premieres tonight at 9PM, is about people who take a TV show way too seriously. Cult stars Matt Davis, who got his start in the sequel to Urban Legend where he portrayed twin brothers, as Jeff, an ex-Washington Post reporter, who gets caught up in the mystery of the show-within-the-show, which is also named Cult, after his brother disappears following a freak-out in a public setting about the show coming after him. Jeff didn’t believe his younger brother, Nate, but he can’t ignore the fact that something weird happened.
Creator Rockne S. O’Bannon seems acutely aware of what he’s doing with Cult. A lot of Cult is a Meta/critical commentary on the audience watching, about its behavior and reaction towards a show, and where fandom becomes fanaticism. The show-within-the-show airs on The CW. The show-within-the-show uses the same design and music for its opening credits as the actual show we’re watching. In fact, the “Pilot” begins with a tense scene in which a cop is trying to track down the leader of the cult, only for the dramatic ending to be revealed as the end of the episode-within-the-episode. Horror movies were the focus in Scream. Urban legends were the focus in Urban Legend. Fan groups are the focus of Cult. Fan groups have gotten more press in the last decade, especially whenever a fan group sends goodies to a network in hopes the goodies will convince the executives not to cancel their favorite shows, or when Everwood fans rented a Ferris Wheel, or whenever a show launches online content for fans to consume and they spend hours figuring out what’s going on and how it’s related and get so pissed when it’s only tangential to the series. O’Bannon’s thesis about fan groups’ and the shows they love isn’t unclear, as unclear as the series’ signature line “Well, hey, these things just snap right off.” One character remarks that shows don’t go to air with executives, creators, etc., hoping for it to be a cult show because cult shows only become that after cancellation. Another character working for the show-within-the-show, Skye, is increasingly disturbed by the more intense fan sites she finds. Her producer ignores her concerns, so she takes to Jeff when he visits the set looking for answers about his brother. They become a team investigating Cult.
Cult captures the late 90s genre tone really well. Jeff spends plenty of time walking around his brother’s apartment, watching episodes of Cult to find clues about what happened to his brother. Jeff watches the show for the first time as he fills up his car’s gas tank. Billy Grimm, the fictional leader of the show, portrayed by Robert Knepper, talks directly to the viewer. Jeff shakes his head initially, but what he found superfluous and silly, what he dismissed as his brother’s needless obsession, becomes much more as he seeks to find meaning in Billy’s words about what happened to Nate. It’s like the characters in Scream or Urban Legend using movies and the legends to anticipate a killer. Early scenes between Jeff and Nate seem like a homage to 1998’s Disturbing Behavior, specifically the scene the night before Gavin’s changed, when he’s freaking out, and the next morning he’s dressed like a prep boy. Jeff finds a picture of Nate dressed like Billy and furrows his brow. There are mysteries begetting more mysteries, all starting with Nate. The deeper Jeff gets into it all, the more bizarre, and yet believable, it becomes.
What’s really going on in the show is only hinted at. “You’re Next” is the pilot, after all. Pilots are designed to hook its potential audience to come back and become the audience. Cult has a few hookable elements. First, there’s a mysterious executive producer who is the man behind the curtain, a mystery in the show that’s probably an actual mystery, a place where fanatics of the show meet and share messages, an absolutely jaw-dropping Lucy Hale look-alike who just looks absolutely dynamite in a mini-skirt and she also looks menacingly at people when they’re not looking at her while serving food and beverage at the fan place, an executive producer portrayed by Tom Amandes that may or may not be clueless, and so on. People can’t be trusted, because of the show. Jeff suddenly views everyone in his town much differently. Cult’s basically Disturbing Behavior-meets-Scream.
Perhaps there’s a reason the show feels so similar to movies made over a decade ago. O’Bannon’s pitch for Cult got rejected by The WB nearly seven years ago. O’Bannon probably had the idea in his head for over a decade. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are executive producers on the show. The duo are responsible for The Carrie Diaries and Gossip Girl on The CW. Schwartz made a name for himself with The O.C. Chuck was never highly rated but it was critically adored and beloved by fans. Schwartz and Savage could get a show that just shows leaves falling off trees for 41 minutes onto The CW’s primetime lineup.
Cult’s not going to blow your mind. Cult should appeal to a specific kind of fan base, the kind of fans weaned on late 90s horrors and thrillers, the kind of fans who’ve gotten obsessed with genre shows, or fans that really like The CW’s existing genre shows. Matt Davis is solid in any role he’s given. Davis grounds his characters, meaning they don’t get too high or low, and so he grounds the show in a way. What’s going on in Cult is complete nonsense. The CW is apparently so popular that gas stations put the channel on for customers to watch during the minute it takes for the gas tanks to fill. Its shows are so watched that half of a town is fanatical about it. Again, though, Cult can be fun for a certain type of fan, one predisposed to this kind of entertainment.
-The CW is running promos for the show. The network’s twitter handle created hash tags for the show. The tag line for the show is: “Don’t watch this.” Only a small segment of the North American population watches The CW. The marketing department shouldn’t have told people not to watch the show. People see an ad for The CW and probably make a mental note not to watch it. The tag line may get some people to tune in that otherwise wouldn’t, but, still, it’s a bad idea.
-Tom Amandes plays Gary Carter, one of the producers of Cult. He’s listed as a guest star. I’d like for him to appear in as many episodes as possible. Amandes played the terrific Harold Abbott on TheWB’s Everwood. I’m surprised he’s not gotten more work since. Treat Williams is EVERYWHERE on TV these days. Where’s the love for Tom? Better yet: Lenkov needs to hire Amandes, keep Williams around, and have them solve a crime in 5-0. Okay, I’m done.
-I remember Robert Knepper from his arc on Heroes. I feel like he’s playing the same character on Cult. I’m also going to guess Billy Grimm is Steven Rae.