TV Review: The CW’s ‘Cult’ is yet another unsuccessfully crazy midseason drama

Don’t look now, but TV networks are about to learn the wrong lessons about wackiness. 
If you measure your wackiness — or “nuttiness” or “lunacy” or whatever — by quantity, rather than quality, we’re in a Golden Age of Goofiness this midseason. 
NBC’s “Do No Harm” had a dude experiencing dissociative identity disorder at regularly partitioned daily intervals, a very expensive sex doll and a sneering psychotic warning a small child with a stuffed animal that monkeys have been known to eat their young.
That was wacky.
ABC’s “Zero Hour,” with its Nazis, Rosicrucians, demon babies, doppelgangers, underground clockmakers and ice-bound submarines, made “Do No Harm” look milquetoast and rational.
Of course, “Do No Harm” was cancelled after only two airings, which is what happens if you premiere with the lowest in-season numbers for any drama in the history of network television.
And although “Zero Hour” launched last week to more robust ratings than “Do No Harm,” it was still the worst start for an in-season ABC drama series, again, in history. Figure in an inevitable Week 2 plunge and the clock is ticking for “Zero Hour.” [Yes. I hate myself for that.]
[Due to its modicum of superficial prestige, I’ve exempted FOX’s dreadful “The Following” from my survey of midseason wackiness, though its sadistic shower threesomes, rudimentary literary analysis and gasoline-wielding Romantic poets are more than enough to qualify. “The Following” also warrants temporary exemption because of its initial success for FOX, though ratings have settled more into the “qualified hit” range than “breakout smash.”]
It would be wrong to say that “Do No Harm” and “Zero Hour” weren’t relatively large swings by NBC and ABC, but they were also relatively large misses. I’ll continue to insist that the version of “Do No Harm” that aired was much cleaner and saner than the pilot that NBC initially sent to series, but “saner” is short of a compliment (and may even be an insult in this context). And I’ll also continue to insist that “Zero Hour” nearly delivered enough craziness to compensate for its overall awfulness, but “nearly” is short of a compliment as well. That’s two strikes.
The third strike for balls-to-the-wall wackiness premieres on Tuesday (February 19) on The CW. Airing after the soothingly conventional and programmatic quirkiness of “Hart of Dixie” — those things sound like criticisms, but “Hart of Dixie” has become an admirable plate of comfort food in its second season — “Cult” has almost no chance of success, though thanks to “The L.A. Complex,” The CW has an astoundingly low bar for in-season record lows and I wouldn’t expect it to fail that badly. But even before it fails with audiences, “Cult” fails creatively. An ill-conceived, poorly scripted, woodenly acted mess, “Cult” is watchably crazy, but that’s the highest praise I can give it. 
When “Cult” joins “Do No Harm” and “Zero Hour” on the quickly-forgotten scrap-heap, I fear networks will decide this is a sign that audiences hate wackiness, as opposed to a sign that audiences are able to sniff out when wacky shows are bad. “Lost” was a wacky show. “The Walking Dead” is a wacky show. Heck, this season’s greatest rags-to-riches network success story is the second season of “Scandal” and there are few shows on network TV wackier than “Scandal.” Blame these midseason failures for being dreadful, not for being difficult-to-categorize or creatively unhinged. 
“Do No Harm,” “Zero Hour” and now “Cult” are examples of shows that are wacky without any grounding, that attempt to string viewers along with unmoored weirdness rather than compelling characters or grounded drama. I’m sure there are versions of all three shows that would have been more successful and a version of all three shows that might have been good (probably different versions). These shows failed because they were bad. I’d still rather have “Do No Harm,” “Zero Hour” and “Cult” than “Formulaic CBS Procedural X.” Better to try something big and fail spectacularly than to try nothing and still probably fail. 
And that was my brief-ish manifesto on failed wackiness. The actual review of “Cult” is after the break.
OK. Gotta pause.
What was I talking about here?
Oh. Right. “Cult.”
Even coming from an industry that loves nothing more than representing itself, The CW’s “Cult” is so self-reflexive and up-its-own-rear that it sets new standards for TV-on-TV Ouroboros, though it probably deserves some credit for pushing its introspection to such extremes that it verges on science fiction.
Created by Rockne O’Bannon, “Cult” is set in an alt-reality present in which The CW is airing a show that has a following so insanely devoted that not only do its fans dress up and role-play situations from the show in the real world and not only do they unspool vast conspiracy theories online, but they also gather at underground clubs where they watch episodes and simultaneously log onto the Interwebs on big, bulky desktop computers to talk about the show. You know how “Hackers” was released in 1995 and set in the present, but it tried to imagine a version of the present that was really more like 1997? I think the year in “Cult” may be 2013, but our present feels a lot like the present-future of “Hackers.” That makes no sense. I understand that. Guess what? The world of “Cult” makes no sense. The degree to which that’s intentional is very much open to discussion. When one character attempts to relate to a journalist by declaring, “My father was a newsman” is that character being intentionally anachronistic? Is that character speaking in the stilted parlance of the “Cult” alt-world (like “Brick,” only bad)? Or is that just horrible dialogue? I don’t know. My instinct? The latter. When a character described as a “researcher” says that she’s investigating “blood splatter” for a TV show, is she not smart enough to know the term is “spatter”? Are the writers not smart enough to know the term is “spatter”? Or in the parlance of the “Cult” alt-world, is the term actually “splatter”? I bet “begs the question” means “raises the question” in the “Cult” alt-world and “literally” means LITERALLY anything you want it to, like a blank tile in Scrabble.
We don’t know that much about the “Cult”-within-“Cult.” It features Robert “T-Bag” Knepper as Billy Grimm, a cult leader who says things like “It’s they who are seeking. Seeking connection. Which I provide,” regarding his followers. Alona Tal plays an FBI agent with ties to the cult trying to find her missing sister. It’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” meets “The X Files” and, for some reason, people LOVE it. Or, let’s be more specific, the people who watch it LOVE it, but most people aren’t watching it. You see, even though “Cult” may be set in universe parallel to our own, even in that sideways universe, the show-within-the-show still airs on The CW, so it’s not like it’s a broad, mainstream success. This is science fiction, not fantasy. Still, the TV show “Cult” appears to be a little bit gritty, a little bit heavy-handed and not afraid of cheap shock-scares. Yes, the show within “Cult” is basically “The Following.”
In the real world of “Cult” — See, this is confusing and it’s not my fault — Jeff (Matt Davis) is a formerly disgraced journalist now working his way back into the profession at the bottom rung. He’s doing the sort of local newspaper work that, in our universe, has been almost entirely eliminated from newspapers, but in the “Cult” alt-universe, ink-stained wretches still have newspaper gigs. When Jeff’s brother, a “Cult” obsessive, goes missing, he has to join forces with the show’s researcher Skye (Jessica Lucas). See, Skye has been looking into the secret fansites springing up around “Cult” and she’s become concerned. Yes, The CW and the show’s producers have been cultivating some sort of fan community, but “Cult” has an extra-super-special, under-the-surface audience. Skye observes, “The people who post to these hard-to-get-into sites, they seem to have some sort of special connection to the show.” And those fans? They’re scared. The producer played by Tom Amandes balks at her concern and observes, “We’re just a television show. They’re just fans.”
Don’t believe him. Over the course of 44 minutes, “Cult” contains around 10 lines of variant dialogue from other people who want you to understand that “Cult” isn’t *just* a TV show and “Cult” fans aren’t *just* fans. Why is that? I haven’t the faintest. “Cult” makes the decision/mistake to show us a lot of “Cult”-within-“Cult” and I’ve seen just enough to not have a clue why anybody would be addicted to it. The secret? Repeated cryptic dialogue. 
“Well hey, these things just snap right off.” 
That’s the pivotal line for both versions of “Cult” and if you’re not instantly fascinated by hearing that line repeated over and over and over again, you’re probably not the audience for either version of “Cult.” And, heck, I’ll admit that I’m vaguely curious which things just snap right off, vaguely curious what the things just snap right off of and vaguely curious why the “Well hey” is so important.
What I’m not even vaguely curious about is what happened to Jeff’s brother and what the bigger conspiracy within the show is. I’m supposed to be tantalized by “fan.dom.ain,” the underground TV viewing club. Instead, I just wonder if Rockne O’Bannon is aware of how people watch TV in our second-screen/third-screen/fourth-screen universe, or if Twitter and GetGlue and laptops just don’t exist in the Cultoverse. I’m supposed to be tantalized by Stephen Rae, the ultra-enigmatic producer of “Cult.” Instead, I just wonder if Rockne O’Bannon has a weirdly inflated view of himself, or perhaps doesn’t know that accessibility is a big part of Joss Whedon’s cult success, though it’s possible ComicCon and WonderCon don’t exist in the Cultoverse. I’m supposed to wonder if Tom Amandes’ character is evil or just clueless and I’m supposed to wonder if the network suit determined to raise the “Cult” ratings is evil or clueless. Instead, I just make the assumption that non-creative producers and executives are inherently evil or clueless, because that’s as deep as the Hollywood meta-text goes here. And I’m probably supposed to wonder why, despite some life-and-death stakes, Matt Davis and Jessica Lucas operate for the entire duration of the pilot with only one facial expression and one intonation. 
Actually, you’re not supposed to wonder on that latter point. There are two plausible reasons for that. The first: Davis and Lucas are CW favorites and they’re easy on the eyes, so why would you worry if they’re being oddly robotic here? Yes, Davis proved that he’s more than a mannequin — I’ve said before that he’s Timothy Olyphant only without the crazy glint in his eye — with a truly accomplished “Vampire Diaries” arc in which he gave a performance that was both edgy and sympathetic, but that needn’t necessarily be the expectation from every role. And while I’ve liked Lucas in things — “Cloverfield” and, oddly, NBC’s not-very-good “Friends with Benefits” — I’ve never necessarily thought she was terrific in anything. So maybe they’re bland because they weren’t cast to be anything other than that. Or maybe… The second: Perhaps Davis and Lucas aren’t acting well because they’ve been directed not to act well. 
It takes very little time to realize that while “Cult” is anchored by two negligible performances, “Cult”-within-“Cult” is anchored by a reliably sleazy and hypnotic performance by Robert Knepper and a convincingly frazzled performance by Alona Tal. The normal instinct with these kinds of meta-fictions is to make the internalized show one-dimensional and broad. That helps viewers tell the difference between layers of fiction, but it’s also a reminder that if Rockne O’Bannon the inspiration to do a great, straight-forward drama about an FBI investigation into a cult, he wouldn’t have wasted that great show as the man-nipples in a completely different show. But maybe the “Cult”-within-“Cult” isn’t the man-nipples to “Cult.” Maybe it’s the other way around? Given that Knepper and Tal both appear in the pilot as the actors playing the characters on the “Cult”-within-“Cult,” I can’t instantly tell you how I would intellectualize a version of “Cult” in which “Cult”-within-“Cult” is the real world and Matt Davis and Jessica Lucas are appearing in a really bad TV thriller about a reporter and a TV assistant investigating a cult inspired by a cult within a different TV show, but I may watch “Cult” for a few more episodes in the hopes that that’s somehow what this turns out to be.
See, I don’t want to think that The CW’s “Cult” (the show premiering tonight, not the show that already has a cult following and doesn’t exist) is just wackiness-for-wackiness’ sake. I want to believe that there’s a purpose and logic behind what would just be bad writing and acting otherwise. Characters keep saying nonsense like “You need to look beyond what’s right in front of you, or you’ll never find his answers” and I have a naive desire to believe that they’re telling the truth. That desire aside, what I suspect is that the writers just have a checklist of things they want me to wonder about, without having fused the riddles around anything for me to care about.
Just as the networks may be destined to learn the wrong lessons about wackiness from this spring’s failures, they also learn the wrong lessons about wackiness from the occasional successes. You watch the “Lost” pilot and there’s no question that you walk away after two hours with five or six burning questions that Abrams and Lindelof planted for exactly that purpose, to incite watercooler conversation and online chatter. But as much as early episodes of “Lost” made me wonder about smoke monsters and polar bears and phantom radio signals, I tuned back in in the second and third weeks because “Lost” had a full cast of characters who I cared about and, at the very root of it all, I cared about their survival. [I didn’t care about how they were going to get off the Island. I always enjoyed the idea that “Lost” could be “Swiss Family Robinson”-esque. Similarly, I like “Gilligan’s Island” most when the castaways were adjusting to their new life, rather than when they were over-investing in an inevitably thwarted effort to escape.] 
I wanted to know why Steven Pasquale’s character on “Do No Harm” transformed back and forth every time the clock hit 8:25. [And I want to know if some monkeys have, indeed, been known to eat their young.] But I didn’t care.
I wouldn’t mind a little order from the clock-baby-Nazi-priest chaos of “The Zero Hour.” But I don’t care.
And yes, I want to know more about the things that just snap right off. But I don’t care. There’s no character in “Cult” or the “Cult”-within-“Cult” who I care about. I don’t care about the superficial semi-satire of Hollywood. And nothing in the show’s rather cheap and shoddy construction had me viscerally gripped on a level above or below “caring.”
And I don’t expect many other viewers to care either.
“Cult” premieres on Tuesday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on The CW.