Cult: “You’re Next” Recap
The CW introduced their new murderous “show within a show” mystery series about a bunch of dangerous cosplayers and a shadowy TV producer. But is it too convoluted for its own good?
Talk about a show that can’t be summed up in a logline, The CW’s Cult – a show about a show called Cult on The CW! - gets a ton of points for being “out there,” ambitious and different. Well, maybe not too different since there are a bunch of different ingredients at work here; a little In the Mouth of Madness, a bit of The Ring. There are even striking parallels to FOX’s The Following even though that could hardly be considered an influence. I do remember that the descriptions of these two series, back when they were in development a few years ago, were a bit similar as far as both had a cult leader with a wide reach of secret, dangerous followers.
But instead of the madman being a flesh and blood man like The Following’s Joe Carroll, the culprit in Cult is the TV show itself. Or even, perhaps, the show’s reclusive creator Steven Rae. Making him, if you used the Mouth of Madness parallel, this show’s Sutter Cane. Robert Knepper’s “show in a show” cult leader, Billy Grimm, winds up acting like a menacing mouthpiece for the show’s evil intentions. Almost like Jigsaw’s puppet. Knepper is actually playing actor Roger Reeves, who plays Grimm on the show, but there’s a sense that this character, perhaps not in literal form, has permeated out into the real world and is now drawing people into a cult on the other side of the screen. One that’s also heavily represented on the internet. But it’s not clear who’s pulling the strings, or why, other than that the people responsible for the abduction of reporter Jeff Sefton’s (The Vampire Diaries’ Matt Davis) show-obsessed brother seem to be part of an underground cosplay group.
Tagging along with Jeff, while looking for his baby bro Nate, is Jessica Lucas’ Skye, a researcher on the show itself who’s become morbidly curious about the Cult’s fan-made websites that feature fearful people who think the show is dangerous. And the two of them have their own backstories that quickly get spilled for the sake of exposition. Which brings me to this show’s ultimate problem. There’s no set tonal difference between the show we’re watching and the show that the characters are watching. The “real world” feels even more like a TV show than that actual “Cult” series which features Alona Tal as a former member of Grimm’s flock now desperately searching for her missing sister. And there’s also a “real world” detective character, played by Aisha Hinds, who just plays as straight-up obtuse and annoying. Yes, there’s a hokum involved as to why she’s a hindrance, but it doesn’t stop most everything in the “real word” – despite desperate attempts to ground it by throwing out producer names like “Joss” and “Bruckheimer” – from feeling more fake than the show’s show.
There are interesting little parallels between the story that Jeff is sniffing out and the show itself, with some of the characters he runs into reenacting, sometimes dangerously, the events from the show; a show which he and Skye realize that they must use as a playbook. It’s an interesting phenomenon this series, because one could accuse it of coming out of the gate with way too many catch phrases (“Well, Hey these things just snap right off”) and clues that haven’t earned the right to be a part of an invested mystery, but the point is that we the viewer are coming in late. This obsessive Lost-type puzzle has already been going on for months on the show, with fans already compiling clues from full episodes of “Cult” that we’ll never see. So all we have are their confusing leftovers. So the accusation doesn’t hold. We could still argue if it makes for engrossing TV though. Still, if you just focus on Jeff and his need to find his brother, things play out a lot more smoothly than if you yourself actually try to play along with the cryptic nonsense.
There’s also a question of “How much should we care about the events that happen on the show ‘Cult’?” I really like Knepper and there are parts of me that want to see how the Agent Kelly/Billy Grimm story plays out more than the “real world” events. But it’s clear that we’ll never be able to watch that story in a straight line. So what do we do with the two-to-five minute long scenes between Tal and Knepper? What are we to think when even Jeff is fast-forwarding through the show to get to clues? Deep down I do want this show to be good, and to improve from this pilot episode. Time will tell as to whether it’s ultimately fun to watch other people put together a jigsaw puzzle.
Matt Fowler is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMattFowler