The new CW series “Cult” centers around the frantic fans of a series on the CW called “Cult” … confused yet? Don’t worry. The show-within-a-show execution is surprisingly seamless, playing on the common TV-fueled fantasy: What if this was all real?
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The plot follows shady, out-of-work journalist Jeff (Matthew Davis, “The Vampire Diaries”) in his search for his missing brother Nate, a fanatic of the fictional “Cult” series. He meets up with a researcher from the show, Skye (Jessica Lucas, “Friends with Benefits”), and the two start investigating linked occurrences between the show and real-life. Meanwhile, detective Kelly (Alona Tal, “Veronica Mars”) investigates the disappearance of her sister, Meadow, somehow related to a-bit-too-aptly named charismatic cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper, “Prison Break”) in the show within the show.
The amount of trust “Cult” places in its audience is refreshing, there’s no dumbing-down here. The concept is ambitious, and it’s the sheer difference that makes “Cult” the best offering out of the CW in a while, since “TVD” has slipped into cure-fueled monotony, “Beauty and the Beast” is dead on its feet and “The Carrie Diaries” is destined for a pre-teen-inspired meltdown.
Even with a radical storyline and a wealth of twists and turns to work around, “Cult” stumbles a bit. The whole thing feels a bit contrived, and the actors fumble with cheesy dialogue and forced interactions. Jeff and Skye’s meeting is too much of a coincidence, every clue seems glaringly obvious and there wasn’t really a need to beat us over the heads with “Well, hey, these things just snap right off.” At least Matthew Davis is back on our TV sets, a blessing and a curse (Alaric, why did you have to die?!), even if he isn’t in top shape.
It’s a shame that “Cult” will debut after the fantastic series “The Following” is just reaching it’s groove. “Cult” comes off as a less-than-stellar knockoff, though the series was originally ordered to air on the former WB Network in 2006, right before the network merged with UPN to form The CW. “Cult” was tossed out until Mark Pedowitz took over The CW and made the series his top priority.
The network could end up working in “Cult” ’s favor, even though there isn’t a lot of faith in the CW for producing more than just mediocre programming. “Cult” does bring together creator Rockne S. O’Bannon (“Farscape”) with executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (“Gossip Girl”), an awkwardly awesome pairing of science-fiction-style kitsch and heavy-handed, soapy drama. With a diverse team behind it, “Cult” certainly has more to say than the pilot suggests.
Set to air only 13 episodes each season, “Cult” will have to pull itself together in order to keep viewers invested — shocking violence and a wealth of suspicious glances just aren’t going to do it — and hopefully, the rather unexciting pilot will morph into a realistic version of what it’s trying to be. God knows the CW can’t afford another flop right now, and the network deserves a successful series for daring to think outside the cube.