In this age of sophisticated, densely packed prime-time, dramatic storytelling, the concept of The CW's new drama series "Cult" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WPCW) is strong. But the execution is weak.
Written and executive produced by Rockne S. O'Bannon, the creator of "Farscape," "Cult" operates on a few levels. It follows newspaper reporter Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis, "The Vampire Diaries") as he investigates the fictional TV show "Cult" that airs on The CW.
His interest in the TV series is prompted by the disappearance of his brother, Nate. Before he disappears, Nate meets with Jeff and tells him he suspects he's being stalked by ... well, by who is not exactly clear: Characters from the show? Deranged fans of the show? Someone who's driving a car used in the show's production? Regardless, Nate says, "It's not just a TV show. It goes beyond that, way beyond."
Initially, Jeff thinks his brother is delusional and/or on drugs again. But after Nate disappears, Jeff begins looking into the show with the help of its researcher, Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas, "Melrose Place"). She has her own suspicions about the series and its mysterious executive producer, Steven Rae.
Throughout the pilot, the story segues from Jeff and his investigation to what's happening on the show-within-the-show, where cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper, "Prison Break") taunts former member-turned-cop Kelly Collins (Alona Tal, "Supernatural"). And cult members have a tendency to say the same phrase -- "Well, hey, these things just snap right off" -- just before killing themselves.
And that brings us to this warning: Although "Cult" is not as gruesome as Fox's "The Following," it is a dark show both thematically and literally with multiple deaths throughout.
Of course, a pilot episode has a lot to do normally -- setting up the world, introducing the characters -- and "Cult" has to do that twice: for the show and for the show-within-the-show. Because there are only 42 minutes of programming in a one-hour prime-time program, some elements will invariably get pushed forward.
For instance, the pilot makes no mention of Skye's interest in Steven Rae, the executive producer of the show-within-the-show, but press notes, and presumably future episodes, make clear she suspects he had something to do with her father's disappearance 10 years earlier.
Similarly, the pilot barely acknowledges the actors who play the characters on the show-within-the-show but press notes suggest the actors' lives will be explored in future episodes. Mr. Knepper plays Roger Reeves, the actor who plays Billy; Ms. Tal plays Marti Gerritsen, the actress who plays Kelly on the show-within-the-show.
While some critics have found "Cult" overly confusing, for viewers accustomed to smart, sophisticated television ("Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones"), it's not hard to follow. The transitions to and from the show-within-the-show are pretty obvious. The problem is that "Cult," at least in the pilot, aspires to be smarter and more sophisticated than it is.
Mr. O'Bannon wisely amps up the show-within-the-show dialogue to sound more TV-ish, and the actors' performances correspond to this, but sometimes the dialogue in the first-level show sounds fairly TV-ish, too.
Still, the best moment in the whole pilot for observant TV fans has Skye explaining to Jeff, "Delete doesn't mean permanent, not if you know what you're doing. I used to work on a Bruckheimer show."
This reference to producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose company produced "CSI," "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace," gives "Cult" a badly needed moment of levity. Other attempts fall flat.
Introducing a know-it-all network executive who wants to make "Cult" less cult-y and more mainstream seems premature. Why not stick with the main characters and then bring in the conniving network exec for an obvious swipe later in the show's run?
In addition, aspects of the plot feel terribly dated, perhaps because the script has been kicking around Hollywood for a number of years. Nate goes to watch "Cult" at a place called FanDomain Cafe where other "Cult" fans gather to watch the show. But group viewing parties in public spaces is very 1990s; with social media sites like Twitter, is there really any reason to leave your couch when you can share your snarky comments with the world online?
So although the details aren't quite right, the concept of "Cult" remains intriguing. Perhaps, like Mr. O'Bannon's "Farscape," "Cult" will improve over time. The CW declined to make future episodes available. So the only way to judge "Cult" will be to watch it. Too bad Tuesday's premiere offers no cause to clamor for more.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.