‘Cult” is one of the strangest creations to come tumbling out of the network TV machine in a long time. It’s freakishly different, like a Siamese twin M&M or one of those potato chips shaped like Elvis’s face. The new CW drama is a meta-thriller about the rabid, violent fandom of a show-within-the-show, also called “Cult.” In other words, “Cult” is about the cult of “Cult.” Yeah, it’s a bit Escherian. If the real CW show “Cult,” about the cult of “Cult,” develops its own cult, then heads may begin to explode.
“Cult” is the second recent series about the dangers of “following” with too much fervor. In “The Following,” a serial killer slavishly worships Edgar Allen Poe, and now he leads his own vicious society of kooks awaiting his orders. On “Cult,” which premieres Tuesday night at 9 on Channel 56, the fanbase of the show “Cult” study their beloved series for hidden instructions, and some of those fans are now missing. When former reporter Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) realizes his fanboy brother has disappeared, he and one of the show’s assistants, Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), investigate.
Interesting? Potentially so. In an age of books about the “Lost” cosmology, Twitter accounts for TV characters, and viewer campaigns that succeed in bringing back canceled shows, the theme of TV fan obsession is rich. There is plenty to be said about the ever-blurring of the line between fiction and reality in social media, and how closely should we “follow” what we see.
But “Cult” is too messy and unnecessarily complex to be the show it could and should be. The premiere is a crowded and sometimes confusing piece of work, with too many back stories, exposition awkwardly stuffed into the dialogue, and an excess of meta-reference. Show creator Rockne S. O’Bannon tries to give us pieces of the show-within-the-show right away, causing a traffic jam of material.
It may be that O’Bannon, who tasted zealous fandom during his years as creator of “Farscape,” is too excited about his story line to hold back some and let it creep out across the season. It’s a common problem, when it comes to pilot episodes. The writers feel compelled to foreshadow every upcoming story line and character twist, and perhaps the networks want them to. The result is too often a mishmash that fails to bring in viewers who don’t want to be overloaded with information before they’ve decided whether or not to stick with the series. “Last Resort” had a case of pilot-itis, too, coming off initially as too complex for its own good. So maybe “Cult” will even out in the coming weeks, and unfold with more deliberateness and grace; maybe not.
The cast isn’t very promising, but, as with most CW series, the acting is definitely not the thing. As the show’s central character, the guy who gets sucked into the “Cult” cult as he searches for his brother, Davis (“The Vampire Diaries”) is a good-looking everyman, no more and no less. His Jeff and Lucas’s Skye are pushed together too quickly and unbelievably, as the Scully-Mulder team who know there are evil things going on among the fans. The two don’t have enough time to establish chemistry.
As the cult leader on the show-within-the-show, as well as the actor who plays him, Robert Knepper — T-Bag from “Prison Break”! — is effective, simply because of his haunting eyes. He has the dissolute expression of an egomaniacal leader. And Aisha Hinds makes a fast impression as a detective who is particularly interested in Jeff.
Tom Amandes is also onhand, as the show-within-the-show’s producer, who makes the older-generation statement that “Cult” is out to disprove: “We’re just a television show, they’re just fans.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew