[Warning: this review contains spoilers for this episode. If you want to watch it, please watch it first, then read the review. I spoil the ending. Heck, I even predict a major revelation that will probably end the first season. Maybe you just shouldn’t read this review at all.]
Cult is about people like me—those of us who enjoy analyzing a TV show or book like mad, looking for its secret beauties. But Cult presents a warped version of us curious folk: no matter how much I obsessed about Lost, I never expected it to be real. I wouldn’t want it to be; that would make its artistry less impressive. Cult is about people who discover that a TV show has "secret messages" with real-world consequences.
The premise is complicated to describe but easy to understand once you’ve watched the show: Robert Knepper (Prison Break) and Alona Tal (Veronica Mars, Supernatural) star in a CW show called Cult, created by a man no one has seen. In that show-within-a-show, Robert Knepper is a cult leader and Alona Tal is the former cult-member, current cop, who is searching for her sister and nephew, captured by Robert Knepper.
In the “real” world, the Cult fandom is like a wacky 1990s version of the Lost fandom. They meet (in person, in a dimly-lit basement cafe) to discuss the show and watch it together. They keep wacky handwritten journals with bizarre symbols, and a collage board of random pictures (just like a serial killer does). They cosplay. And they sometimes disappear.
One Cult fan, Nate, has a tense and cryptic conversation with his brother Jeff before his disappearance, leaving Jeff a pair of 3D glasses and a mention of the show as the only clues. Luckily, Jeff is played by Matt Davis, formerly known as Alaric from The Vampire Diaries. Alaric’s awesomeness bleeds over into Jeff’s character, thank goodness.
Jeff attempts to discover what happens, jumping quickly from “my brother must be on drugs again” to “this Cult show is behind it all”—and therefore skipping the more obvious step of “my brother thinks this show is behind it all, but that would be insane, and isn’t age 20 about when schizophrenia and similarly paranoid delusions start to manifest?”
Luckily, Jeff pairs up with Skye, a plucky TV researcher (ideal job!) who has begun to develop similar doubts about the show. She’s found secret websites—“the ones that don’t want to be found”—and suspects there may be something wacky going on with the show. She has discovered evidence of “deep underground” cosplay. (What “underground” means in this context is a complete mystery to me.)
So they investigate, encountering difficulties and trouble along the way. By the end of the episode, we know more than they do: the cop who has been giving Jeff all sorts of grief is part of a group of people who apparently are part of the cult of Cult within Cult. Thank goodness she followed Rule 17 of the TV Villains Handbook: easily identifiable tattoos.
Cult wants to be meta, but is mostly just insulting. From the young twenty-something who talks about “surfing the web” (who says that these days?) to the idea that the Internet is filled with hidden mysteries (rather than nonsense) to the subtle digs at fandom and those of us who think more about TV than the normals do—this show doesn’t seem to realize that it is biting the hand that feeds it. A fun allusion to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse will only get you so far.
Cult is also illogical, as I hope my above recap makes clear. Assuming the show-within-a-show does have “secret messages” that relate to real-world actions…what’s the point? How is that any different than the secret messages of the Da Vinci Code or, more recently, Zero Hour? Meta-ness is just a gloss on the old Foucault’s Pendulum model. (I’ll bet there’s a complicated CW-managed website filled with “clues” to the show, but I don’t care enough to look at it.)
Cult is not horrible, though. There were a few funny scenes (although I don't know if I was supposed to laugh); perhaps it will ascend into high camp and keep me giggling. Although there is not enough Alona Tal, it is a pleasure to see her on screen again. My affection for Alaric from VD is well known; Matt Davis does a good job staying grounded here. There was one very good scene: Jeff watches a fictional suicide on TV, and stares at it blankly. Minutes later, he sees a real person play out that same scene, and is horrified. It was a strong commentary on violence in art vs. real violence, and how we can become desensitized to one but not the other.
Will Cult maintain the promise of that glimpse of subtlety? I doubt it. Skye dropped some labored hints about her father’s disappearance; I can only assume he is the secret show creator who never appears in public, and that he is orchestrating these real-world events through the show’s secret messages for some nefarious, yet heartwarmingly misguided, reason. We will probably discover that fact in the Season One finale, the last word of which might be “Dad?” The meta-possibilities will likely remain only that: an attempt at depth that doesn’t work.
I hoped I’d love this show, given that it is the reason Alaric left The Vampire Diaries. I worried I’d hate it, for the same reason. Instead, I’m stuck in the middle ground: I’ll probably watch a few more episodes, but I won’t be upset if it is canceled.
Alas, poor Alaric.
Two out of four 3D glasses.