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Reviewed by Mark Bousquet, © 2013

Format: TV
By:   Rockne O`Bannon
Genre:   Sci-fi drama
Review Date:   February 19, 2013
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

Apparently, cults are to 2013 what fairy tales in the real world were to 2011.

One of the really nice things about Hulu is that occasionally you get a TV show before your TV gets your TV show.

Such is the case with Cult, CW’s new show from Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon. I watched it a full week before it made its network debut, (you can, too, right here). Clearly the CW let it out early in an attempt to build some good vibes for the show. It’s a smart move if your show is a good one and Cult is . . .

Well, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s decent enough for me to add to the Hulu queue for the time being.

The premise is a good one, utilizing the show-within-a-show concept: we tune in to watch Cult on the CW, and people in Cult tune in to watch Cult on the CW.

O’Bannon is interested in exploring the blurring of lines between reality and entertainment that consumes a certain segment of fandom. Already in the first episode, Cult touches on chat rooms, fan sites, and cosplay. The show is aimed at exploring the most dangerous possibilities the most dangerous aspects of fandom could concoct, so this show has a dark vibe to it. We’re not talking about Bronies or shippers here, either, but people who appear to have an equal love of The X-Files and Lost and a desire to take the fantasy into reality in order to do bad things to them.

The show needs to crank up the creep factor. What little we’ve seen of the fans here aren’t descendants of Russell Crowe’s Beautiful Mind dissecting every aspect of a show to try and figure out what a symbol on a truck that drives by our main characters means. They're closer to the fans in Scream, where fan obsession leads to dangerous consequences.

Unlike The Following, which offers a wannabe Hannibal Lecter and his flock of needy grown-up children, the first episode keeps us in the dark as to what’s going on. It takes its storytelling cues from X-Files more than anything else, where our male and female investigators are trying to penetrate a shroud of darkness.

Which is reinforced by having almost everything spooky take place at night.

It’s sort of effective here. By giving us both the “real” story of Jeff (Matt Davis) searching for his brother, who goes missing in episode 1 after acting all weird with Jeff. His brother had issues (including drug abuse) and Jeff is at the end of his rope with him, especially when he starts spouting off about this new TV show and people being out to get him.

After his brother goes missing (complete with one last creepy phone call to Jeff) and Jeff finds a bloody chair in his brother’s apartment, he starts watching the show and gets sucked down the rabbit hole. He stops by the set, pretending to still be a reporter for The Washington Post (where he was fired for allegedly faking a source), and as he’s getting kicked out, his pleas are overheard by Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), who works in production on Cult, and together they start investigating the missing brother.

When the show was setting up Jeff dismissively rejecting his brother’s pleas for help, Skye was seen asking one of the show’s producers about the show’s creepy fans, and we later learn through a phone call from one of her friends that Skye is becoming obsessive about the people who are obsessive about the show she works on.

In terms of tone, Cult is pretty successful. Again, it’s totally using the X-Files playbook, going to creepy places at creepy times of day to have creepy things happen.

On the interior show, two detectives (lead female and her male sidekick) are looking for a missing sister, which obviously mirrors the show we’re watching. Besides a gender swap, what separates the two versions of Cult is the female cop on the interior show is an ex-cult member, so she’s totally swallowed the red pill, while Jeff goes from non-believer to confused believer over the course of the episode.

Jeff falls in line pretty quick, which is a conceit given to the show’s formula, I’m guessing. It still rings false, and it’s not the only place where the show trades smarts for plot or mood. Jeff finds a secret CD in a place where, as he says, only he could find it, between two glued together pages of a journal. Easy now, Riddler.

As viewers, we can tell who’s in the Cult cult, because they always stare at people with creepy eyes. There’s a female cop investigating the disappearance of Jeff’s brother, but as you can guess in the first 2 seconds she’s on screen, she’s a cult member, too. With her, you don’t figure it out because of her creepy eyes, but because of the tattoo.

On her forearm.

Skye is willing to help Jeff because her father was a newsman who went missing, and she feels no one should ever go missing or something. It’s weird that she jumps in Jeff’s car when they head to a seedy motel in the woods, but then after they watch his brother’s lady friend blow her brains out, Skye gets a cab ride home. It’s not Jeff’s fault the woman committed suicide, but Jeff seems to get silent blame.

Of the two leads, Jessica Lucas as Skye is the stronger half. She's smart, inquisitive, and gorgeous. I expected to hear the TARDIS land so the Doctor could snatch her up and bring her to a better show.

Matt Davis’ Jeff is supposed to carry the show, but he’s empty. Cult is on the CW, so you would imagine most of their fans are Internet savvy (because they’re either young or cyber stalking Blake Lively), and don’t need a character like Jeff acting dumb and asking questions so the show can explain how things work.

There are times when I can’t help but roll my eyes at Jeff, who seems utterly bewildered at the idea that people could be fans of a show and want to talk about it on the Internet.

What we have, then, is an uneven but not terrible show that succeeds more on mood than story. The best parts are when Cult and Cult begin to merge together, and I hope once we get past the opening episode the show settles into a formula that gives us decent stories and lots of mood.

I don’t love what I’ve seen, but I like the promise enough to stick around for a few episodes and give it a shot.

More things happen than this guy sitting in a chair, I promise.

Follow Mark Bousquet @mark_bousquet and read his metric ton of movie & TV reviews at Atomic Anxiety.

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