The CW show really puts Matt Weiner’s obsession with spoilers into perspective
“Cult,” a new series starting on the CW tonight, is about a show within a show, also called “Cult.” “Cult,” the fake one, is a ratings-challenged, fanatically beloved series airing on the CW (be the change you want to see in the world, etc). It follows a female detective who is tangling with a seductive and creepy cult leader named Billy — think John Hawkes in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — who has recently orchestrated the kidnapping of her sister. Fans of the show are so obsessed, they pore over its every episode, talk obsessively about it in online chatrooms, and even dress up like the characters (costumes: slightly more modern Warren Jeffs), but it’s not all in fun. The cult isn’t just a fictional TV creation: It’s a creepy, dangerous, underground organization that commits real violence.
In tonight’s premiere, a nervous young man named Nate, who watches the show religiously, figures out how to “make contact” with the people who are really running the show/cult. He soon goes missing, but not before leaving his brother Jeff, a marginally disgraced reporter, a highly detailed crazy-person notebook to help him to figure out what exactly is going on, where the show ends and the cult begins, why, for example, a woman dressed as a character from the show would shoot herself in the head while saying a line from the series that is exactly the same line a character on the show said as he shot himself in the head.
Further meant to extend the hall-of-mirrors effect: The show-within-the-show is created by Steven Rae, a never-seen, reclusive mastermind who refuses to take network notes, and, presumably, is also the real cult leader. At the end of tonight’s episode “Steven Rae” is credited as the series’ executive producer. (He’s not really; maybe the real creator didn’t want to distort his Google-ability.) In other words, the big bad guy of “Cult” is a malevolent showrunner. The CW has figured out how to wring a horror series from auteur theory. The meticulous, obsessive, creative genius is interested not in theme and continuity, but mind control. It really puts Matt Weiner’s whole thing about spoilers into perspective.
While I am enormously tickled by this premise — a gruesome, not comedic, riff on showrunner deification— not very much about “Cult” lives up to it. The show has got a ponderous B-movie quality, everything so serious and simultaneously so silly. Major clues are unlocked because people put on … 3-D glasses. Like Fox’s “The Following,” “Cult” is about a charismatic sociopath using the Internet and modern technology to secretly recruit and brainwash alienated lost souls. It’s a zeitgeisty premise — it plays on our anxieties about Internet culture, that it’s not just inundating us with cat videos, but breaking down the social fabric — that pivots, in one case, on the power of a bogus interpretation of Poe, and in the other, on the alleged power of a CW show. Cat videos are more threatening.
Every single actor on the show is recognizable, many from other CW series, which further accentuates the B-movie vibe. Billy (Robert Knepper), the cult leader, played T-Bag on Fox’s “Prison Break”; Kelly (Alona Tal), the detective, appeared in “Veronica Mars”; leading man Jeff (Matthew Davis) was on ”The Vampire Diaries”; Skye, the female lead (Jessica Lucas), a researcher helping Jeff, showed up on the rebooted “Melrose Place”; one of the dads from “Everwood” (Tom Amandes) plays a producer; Dwayne Wayne himself (Kadeem Hardison) appears as Kelly’s cop partner. As with everything about “Cult” this kind of casting is a pretty good idea that doesn’t quite work. The show-within-the show features actors who may be more than what they seem — they may be cult members. Recognizing the actors on “Cult” from other places could be destabilizing in a similar way – make it feel like they’re playing dress-up too — but it just took me out of the show and got me wondering about what CW project they’ll show up on next.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer. More Willa Paskin.
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11