The CW’s Cult, which premieres Tuesday, opens with grainy documentary footage of cult leader Billy Grimm explaining why people flock to him. In the background, a blonde follower looks wistfully into the camera. Cut to the same blonde, now a detective, driving through the night with her partner to hunt down said cult leader, who has kidnapped her sister and nephew.
Confused yet? Surprise! Everything you've seen thus far is a TV show called Cult within the actual TV show called Cult. When obsessed Cult fan Nate goes missing, his big brother, reporter Jeff Sefton (Matthew Davis of The Vampire Diaries), teams up with production assistant Skye (Jessica Lucas of Melrose Place) to rescue him. As they get closer to Nate, they realize real life has begun to mirror the fictional television series -- with bloody consequences.
The premise is ambitious, and there are so many characters (real and imaginary) that it's tough to latch on to one of them as someone to root for. It's also difficult to believe the show-within-the-show has such an ardent and decidedly un-ironic fan base. Jeff and Skye visit Nate's favorite bar, the unfortunately named "Fan Domain," and discover "underground" cosplayers who dress up like cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper of Heroes and Prison Break) and his followers. When they track down Nate's closest friend, she shoots herself in a perfect replica of one of the show’s scenes. On returning to Nate's house, they plop a DVD in a laptop and uncover a message from Grimm: "You're next."
Cult creator Rockne S. O'Bannon should know a thing or three about obsessed fans. He's the man behind Alien Nation, SeaQuest and Farscape. The aesthetics of Cult are closer to Lost and, unfortunately, the latter seasons of The X-Files (the ones without Agent Mulder). Everything from the Fan Domain bar to the use of a DVD feels a decade out of date. I love the idea of fan obsession gone wrong, but there must be a way to put it in a more contemporary package.
There is supposed to be an obvious parallel between obsessive fandom and joining a cult. It's true that my friends who watch TV with me tend to share a language, a sense of humor, and every so often, a dark glance when someone decides to stop watching. (Who gives up on The Wire before Season 4? Come on!) But it's a stretch to imagine a show that would incite real violence rather than, say, elaborate fan fiction. Because we only see snippets of this show-within-a-show, any tension that is in theory happening on screen gets broken up by Jeff and Skye's adventures in the "real" world.
Cult isn't an awful show; I want to know what happens next. But to gain a real fan base, it will need to flesh out those characters, and use more than hidden symbols and 3D glasses to move the plot along.
Cult premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.