Plugged In can be cautionary when it comes to entertainment. But even while we may insist that TV can be harmful, never have we accused a show of being an accessory to premeditated murder.
Then again, we've never reviewed Cult.
I'm right now in the middle of reviewing Cult, of course, the real fictional hour-long freak-out drama on CW. Indeed, that's the review you're currently reading. But we've not reviewed Cult, the fictional fictional hour-long freak-out drama on which CW's Cult—the one I'm reviewing—is predicated.
Hoo boy. Let's back up and start again.
Nate Sefton has gone missing. Jake, his brother, would like to find him. But here's the thing: Jake thinks Nate's favorite show—called Cult—may have something to do with his disappearance. The creepy, conspiracy-minded drama has inspired a seriously (ahem) cultish following; folks who follow the show's every movement, every hint, every commercial break. And the most avid fans? Well, they seem to think Cult wants them to kill. Or die. Or both.
Yeah, this show within a show has definitely moved beyond mail-order plastic decoder rings.
And by way of highlighting Cult, the other Cult—the one I'm reviewing—turns itself into something of an ambitious series. At least on the surface. It aspires to be, in its own very CW-ish way, a rumination of 21st-century television.
"We were really taking a look and asking some questions … about the relationship people have to their shows, which is certainly more pronounced, I think, than ever before," executive producer Len Goldstein said during a recent media panel. "People watch them certainly more critically. They're more interested in them. There certainly is a fan passion for a certain type of show. We're looking at asking questions just generally about the relationship of television to society."
During the same panel, creator Rockne O'Bannon said it's no coincidence that Cult came at a time when society is more closely examining the links between fictional violence and real-life aggression.
And here's another little twist: Steven Rae, the über-mysterious head of Cult's Cult, is listed as the executive producer for Cult, too.
All of this makes the series, at least for wonky television critics like me, sound way more interesting than it actually is. Because while scads of intriguing themes are indeed in play, this is still very much a CW show. And that means most of that intrigue is sublimated to the standard tropes of a CW show. And that means the main characters are uniformly pretty, if somewhat vacuous; the dialogue is wooden; and the action trundles from plot point to plot point with very little sense of nuance or grace.
And even as Cult mulls the overall influence of Cult in particular and television in general—particularly television violence—it has no qualms about foisting said television violence on its own viewers. An onscreen fan commits messy suicide in the first episode. A victim is shown with his mouth stitched shut in the second.
By adding Rae to the CW credits and embracing so passionately this show-within-a-show conceit (the fictional Cult, just like the real Cult, is a CW show), the network seems to want to pretend that its Cult may be an even darker show than it appears—that somehow watching the thing might be dangerous. You know, just like the video in The Ring. As an onscreen show exec says about his Cult, "A show's gotta have an edge these days in order to break out."
Thankfully, in many ways, that dark conceit fails here. It's hard to ever take the CW seriously, and in Cult's case, it's even harder than normal. But when the best you can say about a show is that it's probably not looking to actually recruit viewers and convert them into homicidal cultists, well, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. Near the end of an early episode, a cultist laments the loss of his wife, who committed suicide due to the influence of Cult.
"I should've never let Marion watch the show!" he bellows.
Sounds like good advice for everyone, really. Just not for exactly the same reasons.
"In the Blood"
Jake and Skye try to talk with the man whose wife killed herself the episode before; he shoos them off with a shotgun and profanity. Later the pair discover him kissing the female detective who's supposed to be helping Jake find his brother. When they return to his mobile home, they find him bound and gagged in a cabinet. He refuses to leave, despite knowing that the cultists are trying to destroy his home. The thing blows up, killing him.
A studio exec is held by cultists—his lips stitched together (we see a string and hooked needle dangling from his mouth), his face bruised and bloody, and his body fastened to a chair with saran wrap. He's ostensibly naked (the wrap obscures his lower regions), and a female cultist sits on his lap and kisses him. Then she gets up and tells a knife-wielding man to go to work on him.
Kelly (an actress playing an FBI agent in Cult's Cult) discovers a body buried vertically, facedown. In flashback, we see Kelly being pulled from a similar hole as part of an initiation ritual. Cult leader Billy has a henchman give her someone's bloody, severed finger.
We hear "h‑‑‑" (multiple times), "b‑‑tard" (twice), "d‑‑n" (twice) and misuses of God's name (three or four times). Characters pull beers out of a fridge. A woman wears a sports bra.