No art form is more sensitive to social media than television.
Over the years, shows as disparate as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men” and “The Colbert Report” widened and intensified their fan bases through Twitter, Facebook, network websites and YouTube, making devotion just as important as ratings in defining a show’s success. But there can be a dark side to this intensity; a fan’s feeling of ownership can erupt in vitriolic hysteria when a beloved character is killed or an episode doesn’t deliver — the social-media furor over the first season finale of “The Killing” almost got the show canceled.
Now, it appears, television is fighting back. The CW’s “Cult” takes the notion of the super-fan to a whole new, crazy-great level by creating a show within a show that has intentions far more lofty and nefarious than simple ratings dominance.
On the actual “Cult,” which is created by “Farscape’s” Rockne S. O’Bannon, a fictional CW show, also called “Cult,” has a fan base “The Walking Dead” would die for. Also, it has a creator more powerful than “Mad Men’s” Matt Weiner — the mysterious Steven Rae is not only allowed to remain in seclusion so he can write whatever he wants, but he does so with no network involvement.
Of course, the actual “Cult” was green-lighted by network executives, so it isn’t surprising that the result of such creative freedom is Utter Chaos.
The show within the show follows Kelly Collins (Alona Tal), a young police officer searching for her missing sister whom she believes was snatched by Billy Grimm (“Prison Break’s” Robert Knepper), the menacing but charismatic leader of a cult to which Kelly once belonged. Billy’s cult combines the time-honored Manson-like hallmarks (desert setting, attractive young acolytes without a comb among them) and the power of the 21st century — “I don’t even know how big we are,” Billy tells Kelly, motioning to a pod of followers tapping away on laptops (Wi-Fi supplied apparently by Satan, given the isolation of the locale.)
Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, fans of the show also hunch over keyboards, looking for Easter eggs hidden within the show and on the network-sponsored websites, clues that will take them nearer to … what? And therein lies the rub.
Skye Yarrow, a research assistant played with CW-requisite wide-eyed, lip-biting concern by Jessica Lucas, is worried about what’s happening on “the other sites,” the ones not sponsored by the network. So when journalist Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) makes his way on set to get a few answers about the show’s influence, Skye is more than happy to help.
Like Kelly, Jeff is looking for a missing sibling — his brother Nate (James Pizzinato), a twitchy former addict who in his absolute obsession with “Cult” believes he has broken some sort of code that will lead to “Them.” As he disappeared immediately after revealing this, Jeff is inclined to believe him. And so a narrative is born, with Jeff and Skye gobbling up clues in what is either the best marketing campaign since Nike invented the swoosh or an attempt to create a real cult by brainwashing millions for murderous ends.
Either way, a tantalizing proposition.
If that’s not meta enough, “Cult” has just the right amount of preposterous dialogue and clunky transitions to draw potential hate-watchers too, a bit of zeitgeist juggling that is both slightly nauseating and admirable. With “Cult,” O’Bannon is trying to make a hit show by darkly satirizing many of the current forces that make a hit show. The show’s tag line — “Well, hey, these things just break right off” — practically comes with a T-shirt attached, and even the camera work has a Comic-Con horror franchise feel to it.
Mixed with Fox’s “The Following,” in which an imprisoned serial killer uses the Internet to gather baby serial killers to him, “Cult” serves up the nation’s latest form of mass anxiety. The idea of brainwashing disguised as a mass-marketed entertainment is not a new one and parental concerns about the effect of Facebook and Twitter On Our Young People are all but universal.
But “Cult” is fairly specific in its target and, behind all the multimedia handsprings, there is a splash of bravery.
Obsession is a dangerous word, too freely tossed around by marketing types and even critics like me. Television is an old power now engaged in a complicated dance with a new one. As anyone who has gotten a truly frightening email from a viewer knows, devotion can turn, fast and hard.
Those who would raise an army to carry their show, or film, or product, need to have a care. Because, well, hey, these things really can just break right off.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)