Television review

‘Cult’ will have you seeing double

Cult is a show on The CW about a show on The CW called Cult. No, dammit, I am sober and that is not garbled type. The show-within-the-show version of Cult — let’s call it the SWS, in the utterly vain hope of keeping things straight — is a fictional one about a murderous and manipulative communal sect, so popular that its fans start murdering and manipulating outside the SWS, in the just-plain-show (we’ll call it JPS) version of Cult.

Sadly, I have re-read that paragraph about 27 times and have concluded that there is no way to make it simpler or less confusing. Cult is like a snake eating itself in the ninth circle of McLuhanite Hell: The medium is the mess.

The show’s history is almost as garbled as its premise. Conceived by veteran sci-fi screenwriter Rockne S. O’Bannon ( Farscape, Alien Nation), Cult’s pilot was originally commissioned eight years ago by The WB network. But just before production was to begin, The WB merged with another rickety little network, UPN, to form The CW — and the new bosses promptly killed Cult.

Oddly, the rap against Cult back then was not that it was hopeless gibberish but that it was too dark. This version has supposedly been lightened, but if there’s one thing that shines through all the plot confusion, it’s the show’s determined grimness. Grisly suicides occur on Cult with the frequency of boyfriend swaps on Gossip Girl, and considerably more realism.

Cult’s story, insofar as it can be deciphered by a team of laid-off CIA cryptographers I hired for the purpose, concerns two brothers. Reporter Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis, The Vampire Diaries) is looking for his flaky younger brother, who vanished after developing an obsession for a TV show about a charismatic but ruthless cult leader (Robert Knepper, Prison Break). He soon teams up with Skye (Jessica Lucas, Melrose Place), a research assistant on the show who has grown apprehensive about some of the weirdness connected to it.

The show, they discover, keeps spilling over into reality. Actors have difficulty keeping their roles separate from their lives, and fanboy wannabes engage in role-playing of their favorite characters so intense that it results in abductions and murders. In short, it’s a lot like Glee if Rachel, Finn and the gang turned homicidal, though everybody at Fox assures me that won’t happen until season five.

Between the show-within-the-show aspect of Cult, the fact that many of the cast members play double roles (that is, a character, plus the actor playing that character) and the role-playing games of the fans, it’s almost impossible to tell who is doing what to who, or why, at any given moment. (It’s also impossible to have an intelligent opinion about the skill of the actors, since you have no idea who they’re supposed to be playing.)

Watching Cult is like trying to read a Kafka novel in Sanskrit. When you’re blind. And drunk. Thanks anyway, but I don’t need the hangover.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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