The CW aired the pilot episode of its new supernatural conspiracy show Cult last night, and it's about . . . a CW show called Cult, which (unlike real-life Cult) has a cult following. Yes, it's meta, and I like that. But there's a problem. This is a show about television fandom that hasn't got the first clue about what such fans are really like. The other problem is that when we see snippets of the show-in-the-show Cult, we can't figure out why anyone would be a fan of it to begin with. Still, there's something sort of fun about this whole trainwreck of an idea keeps you watching.
Like FOX series The Following, Cult imagines a charismatic figure who controls fans through the internet. Except in Cult, this charismatic figure is really the TV show itself, or maybe its mysterious showrunner Steven Rae. This setup could give us a chance to have some amusing inside baseball moments, and there are a few. At one point a clueless CW exec tries to take a meeting with Rae to boost the show's ratings, saying that he just came over from FOX, where he kept helped "Joss" stay on for a whole season. Sadly, this is pretty much the only pop culture savvy moment in a show that should basically be the macabre, disturbing sibling of Community.
Instead, Cult takes us into the world of fictional cult led by Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper), whose scariest property seems to be an ability to make people shoot themselves after saying "Hey, these things just snap right off." I actually love the "snap off" line, which is part of the mystery in both the fictional and real-life stories. It's mundane and creepy and hints at some pretty grisly connotations. In the fictional world, a detective named Kelly is tracking Grimm's cult, which she fled years before. She believes Grimm has kidnapped her sister and nephew, and is conducting raid after raid on the sunny farm where Grimm controls his minions. Apparently it is so remote that you can't get a cell signal there, but he's still able to use the internet to get suicide orders out to all his followers.
Back in the real world, Jeff is a disgraced reporter who has just been fired by the Washington Post for fabricating a story that got some corrupt cops sent to jail. Even though the cops really were corrupt, for some reason the Post still though it was bad for Jeff to make shit up. Now his unstable younger brother is freaking out and saying "they" are out to get him. Jeff is having a really bad day.
And it gets worse when he meets up with his brother, who explains that he's gotten really deep into Cult fandom and now he's in danger. Then he forces Jeff to take some really ugly 3D glasses from him. Jeff dismisses this as a bunch of hooey until he gets an even crazier call from his brother, and finds a giant bloodstain in his brother's apartment. The cops don't believe him of course — they blame the whole thing on drugs, and hint that maybe Jeff is in on it too. (Later we find out that the main cop — the one with the sexy haircut — is actually A CULT CULTIST.)
So this is when Jeff decides to pretend he's still a Washington Post reporter, doing a story on the show Cult. Just to get more information about the show, you know. And of course they catch him because apparently the publicists at Cult are actually smarter than fact checkers at the Post and check on Jeff's representation of the facts. Still, before they kick his lying ass to the curb, a researcher named Skye overhears Jeff's story about his missing brother and grabs him. Because she's been reading some pretty scary things in "those other fan sites," you know, the "underground ones" where "people are scared." We know Skye is savvy about online fandom because A) she knows how to read text messages on a phone; and B) she just GETS IT.
Skye takes Jeff to the bar where TV fans all hang out "to watch their shows." It's called FanDomAin, and it's this neon-lit, seedy place that looks sort of like a strip club except with computers everywhere. Nobody is actually watching TV. They're just staring at monitors, and building a giant collage of pictures from the show Cult on the wall. Seriously just watch this scene. Who on this show decided that fandom looks like this? These people should all be sitting in their cubicles at work writing comments on io9, or making new Tumblrs about otters that look like Benedict Cumberbatch, or composing something really precise and angry about the latest Cult episode's continuity in a forum. Seriously bars like this DO NOT EXIST in America (caveat: I have actually seen places sort of like FanDomAin in Tokyo, and they are amazing — but we are never given reason to believe that Cult takes place in a future world where this aspect of otaku culture has gone mainstream in the U.S.).
Then — and I love this moment — Skye shows Jeff what is basically a cosplay forum (she calls it "role play") and explains that "it's all extremely underground." REALLY?! Cosplay, which is among the most gentle, innocent and silly aspects of fandom, is supposed to be this dark scary thing? Because Cult role players, you see, DRESS UP AS PEOPLE IN THE SHOW. Don't you see how disturbing that is?
Also, I love this screenshot of the role players cooking up a "happening":
Hey, I've got my truck! Let's dress up! It's on!
Anyway Jeff and Skye go to the role play happening, find Jeff's brother's friend IN COSTUME, and then she shoots herself after saying (you guessed it) "these things just snap right off." Now the police are seriously suspicious of Jeff, since he's been at two crime scenes in the space of like 12 hours.
Cue a long soul-searching scene where Jeff pores over his brother's Cult fandom notebook, full of weird diagrams and maniacal scribbling. In it, he finds a CD marked "M." A CD which he saw in the show! On the show, the CD takes over your computer and sends all your personal data to Grimm — so why shouldn't he stick it in his laptop? As he and Skye look on (ho hum) we see Jeff's driver's license appear and then Grimm's cackling face intoning, "You're next!" Then they get a weird call from Jeff's brother (still alive?) saying that it was bad to use the CD and saying the "snap off" thing before the line goes dead.
Meanwhile, in the Cult show, Kelly has discovered her nephew in a box (alive) and realized that Grimm really did kidnap her sister. And in real life, that former FOX exec who worked with Joss JUST GOT KIDNAPPED BY CULT CULTISTS. Because he dared to try to speak to showrunner Rae.
OK let's just switch over to my recap within a recap, in honor of this show about a show:
1. Cult is a TV show that has no idea how TV works. There is no way that the showrunner for a show that's dying in the ratings would be allowed to refuse meetings with his execs. Maybe this will develop into a "Satan controls the CW" plot — I dunno.
2. Cult is a TV show about fandom that has no idea how fandom works. This is particularly weird, given that the show's creator, Rockne O'Bannon, created the cult show Farscape and should know a thing or two about fandom. And yet it's so entertaining to watch how wrong this all is!
3. Cult is a TV show about a TV show with a cult following that would never have a cult following. We never understand why fans are so into this show. All the snippets we see of the show look like CSI crossed with Once Upon a Time.
4. I still totally want to keep watching the train continue its wreck. Yay for "dress up happenings" and FanDomAin and strip clubs for TV fans!