Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pilot Review: Cult

Cult (Tuesdays at 9:00 on The CW; Premieres February 19)

Even though Cult is better in concept than in execution, it's the kind of show you can't help but root for. It's so self-aware, so meta, so clever that you have to appreciate it just as much as (or more than) you enjoy it; Cult is the kind of show that should be done all the time on television, and I applaud the CW for taking the risk of putting it on the air. Whether or not is is entirely successful is another story, but it's such a valiant effort to do something new and different that I love Cult regardless.

The pilot begins with what is actually a show-within-a-show called Cult, airing on The CW. It involves a detective/former cult member who is searching for her missing sister and niece, and all signs point to charismatic cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper, Heroes). The show has developed a rabid fan base who gather at underground internet cafes to watch, discuss, role play, and look for clues to a bigger mystery they believe is contained within the show's framework. One such fan is Nate (James Pizzinato, Alcatraz), who believes someone is trying to stop him from discovering a secret within the show. He tells his disgraced former reporter brother Jeff (Matt Davis, The Vampire Diaries) this shortly before he goes missing, leaving behind a trail of clues from his favorite TV show and a huge bloodstain. Jeff goes looking for answers at the Cult set and joins forces with Skye (Jessica Lucas, Melrose Place), one of the show's researchers, who has stumbled across some disturbing fan interactions on the internet and believes Nate's story. Together they start following the clues Nate left behind, realizing they may be in a little over their heads with the extreme and unpredictable fandom Cult inspires.

From the get go, the editing and direction are confusing. I was not very familiar with the concept of the show before I began watching (The CW has been especially tight-lipped about this production, and I can only assume it's because the confusion part of the fun of watching), so it took me quite a few, minutes to figure out what was going on. Those were some painful few minutes, because the acting in the show-within-a-show is so terrible, so amateurish, so purposefully melodramatic that I thought I was just watching a really bad primetime soap. Once the real show kicked in, it was much easier to follow along; but after seeing some of the scenes from Cult, it's hard to believe that anyone would be inspired to fandom mega-heights by such an awful show. Perhaps that will be elaborated upon in subsequent episodes, because despite the show-within-a-show's shortcomings, it's easy to understand the allure of Billy Grimm (seriously, how amazing is that name), as played by Knepper. It may not be realistic that he constantly addresses the audience, speaking directly into the camera, but when he does it's chilling. He's the only interesting thing about the fake show for now. It's made out to be something larger than life, as if the fandoms of Firefly, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and The X-Files combined to create the super-fandom of Cult. But those shows were all really well done, and the fake on here just isn't.

The rest of Cult, the real show, is a fun but uneven ride. The transitions between scenes from the fake show to the main storyline are not always smooth and always jarring (thanks mostly to the bad acting mentioned above). As a concept, this is totally fascinating. It's a TV show about how obsessed we all are with TV shows; and here I am dissecting it, just like the people on screen. But the cleverness often gets away from creator Rockne S. O'Bannon (Farscape) and director Jason Ensler (Franklin & Bash). Often Cult gets too "wink-wink" for its own good and makes itself look dumb as a result. For example, Jeff is given a pair of 3-D glasses early in the episode but disregards them until he sees a character on Cult using them to search for clues; so he does the same and makes a breakthrough. The obvious parallels between the show and those investigating it are blatant and uncreative. The script seemed to get all of its good ideas out of the way early, leaving two concurrent storylines that are actually telling the same story. Ensler's direction doesn't do much to clarify or intensify things either. By the time the show's "disciples" are revealed, it's already been obvious who they are: the ones who are constantly scowling and following Jeff and Skye around. The direction is lazy at times, wanting the audience so badly to connect the dots that they've already been highlighted and drawn in pencil for you.

However, the saving grace of Cult is that it knows everything it is. It knows it's a little campy, a lot melodramatic, and entirely meta. Davis and Lucas are likeable leading players, so it's appropriate that they lead us through this world of over-the-top fan obsession. They, and Knepper as well, play the whole thing with a nod to the audience, knowing full well that they're setting out do the very thing the show-with-the-show has done: grab viewers by the throat and drag them along for the ride. This leads to some really cool moments, such as picking out the boxy Cult logo in random places throughout the pilot and quick, almost unrecognizable jumps that read "Do Not Watch This." And despite how poorly done the episode may be at times, I found myself fully immersed in Cult. I have a feeling there will be some unpredictable twists and turns ahead, and coupling that with how fresh the whole conceit is, I don't really care that the pilot could and should have been better. Because in this case, I care more about the story and the mystery than I do about the presentation.

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