“Cult” sounds like a good idea on paper and, alas, that’s probably where it should have stayed. A dense construct about a fictional TV show whose obsessedfans might be more dangerous than they seem, the series combines an intriguing star (“Prison Break’s” Robert Knepper) and a showrunner (Rockne S. O’Bannon) with deep genre roots, but falls victim to its confusing mumbo-jumbo and indifferent casting. Even with some creepy moments, this at best feels like “The Following Lite,” which would appear to sentence this CW skein to the kind of cultish audience that generally heralds a short and bumpy ride.
Conceptually, the series occupies an interesting space, exploring the blurring of fiction and reality. That ought to have potential for a cynical, tech-savvy crowd, especially with so much reality TV bordering on fiction.
The pilot, however, spends a lot of time dishing out ominous warnings without providing any clarity, and throws together two attractive but nondescript leads whose characters come equipped with the kind of silly backstories that remind you you’re watching a TV show after all, and not a very smart one at that.
Knepper plays Billy Grimm, the beady-eyed star of “Cult,” a TV program (airing on the CW, natch) that has birthed hidden fansites with “some sort of special connection” to the franchise.
Determining just how special is left to Jeff Sefton (Matthew Davis), a newspaper reporter (do CW viewers even know they still publish those?) whose brother ran afoul of the group; and Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), a researcher on the program, whose Web savvy alerts her to some of the strange doings.
Among the many false notes in “Cult,” the show’s mysterious creator, named Steven Rae, is never seen (because, as we know, the first thing successful showrunners do is reclusively shun publicity), and Skye references her dad having been a crusading local TV reporter who disappeared for crossing the wrong people (because, as we know, there’s so much hard-hitting investigative work in local TV news).
In some respects, “Cult” is tailor-made to the CW, which prides itself on catering to a younger audience as likely to watch on an iPad as a TV screen. Even so, the shiny exterior and show-within-a-show construct can’t obscure the pilot’s general incoherence — or nagging questions about where any of this might be heading.
On the plus side, Knepper can make saying “Friend” sound like an implied threat, and the program does create its own instant catchphrase — “These things just snap right off” — usually uttered by one of the “Cult”-ists right before something terrible happens.
Like so much in the debut, it’s not exactly clear what the line means. But in the context of TV and what can be done with a remote control, it makes perfect sense.