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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2012-2013 season, now in its seventh year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
CULT (The CW)
(written by Rockne S. O'Bannon; directed by Jason Ensler; TRT: 43:02)
The network's description: "Investigative journalist Jeff Sefton has learned to laugh off his brother Nate's relentless string of obsessions, especially his latest rant that a hit TV show intends to harm him. However, when his brother mysteriously disappears, Jeff takes Nate's paranoia seriously, and in the process uncovers the dark underworld of the TV show "Cult" and its rabid fans. The only person who seems willing to help Jeff with his investigation is Skye, a young research assistant for "Cult," who has also started to grow suspicious of the increasingly dark happenings surrounding the show. The fictitious show, centered on the cat-and-mouse game between charismatic cult leader Billy Grimm and LAPD detective Kelly Collins, has become an obsession for its viewers - and now some of its devotees seem to be taking their fixation to deadly extremes in the real world. As Jeff and Skye dig deeper into the fan world, they discover that the gruesome plot twists on television are much more than fantasy for some very unfortunate people. The hardcore fans of "Cult" would kill to see what happens next...
The series stars Matt Davis ("The Vampire Diaries") as Jeff Sefton, Jessica Lucas ("Melrose Place," "Cloverfield") as Skye Yarrow, Alona Tal ("Supernatural," "The Killing") as Kelly Collins and Robert Knepper ("Prison Break," "Shameless") as Billy Grimm. CULT is from Fake Empire and Rockne S. O'Bannon Television in association with Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios, with executive producers Rockne S. O'Bannon ("Farscape," "V"), Josh Schwartz ("Chuck," "Gossip Girl"), Stephanie Savage ("Hart of Dixie," "Gossip Girl"), Len Goldstein ("Hart of Dixie") and Jason Ensler ("Franklin & Bash," "Hart of Dixie"). The pilot was directed by Jason Ensler and written by Rockne S. O'Bannon."
What did they leave out? "Cult" was originally set to film a pilot for The WB in 2006 - featuring Matt Bomer in the Matt Davis role and to be directed by Yves Simoneau - but production was terminated as a result of the UPN/The WB merger. Plus, the pilot will make its world premiere tonight at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
The plot in a nutshell: "They come because they want to belong, to be part of the unconditional love, the acceptance that I offer," famed cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper) explains in footage from the 2009 documentary "Cults in America." And with that we meet Kelly Collins (Alona Tal), a driven LAPD detective/former member of said cult, who blames Billy for the disappearance of her sister and nephew. What she doesn't have however is proof, just the same cryptic last words from Billy's alleged victims: "Well hey, these things just, snap right off." Thankfully all of the above isn't real: it's from the latest episode of "Cult," a new series on The CW.
Among its ardent follows is Nate Sefton (James Pizzinato), who like many superfans is constantly looking for clues inside the show to unlock a larger mystery. He's nevertheless a little too invested, telling his investigative reporter brother Jeff (Matt Davis) that someone is actually after him, trying to stop his efforts. And while Jeff initially dismisses them as flights of fancy from a recovering drug addict, when Nate goes missing - leaving a pool of blood behind in his apartment - he can't help but wonder if there's something to his theory. He's not alone either: Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), a production assistant on "Cult," has found that some of the show's fan sites have gotten... a little extreme to say the least. She realizes Jeff is a kindred spirit during his botched attempt to see Steven Rae, the show's reclusive creator, and agrees to help him in his quest. Together they just might figure out what exactly is going on.
What works: I've shamelessly been in love with this script since reading it back in 2006. Subliminal cuts to title cards that say "Do Not Watch This," 3D glasses that show hidden clues, a meta commentary on the obsessive nature of TV fandom - what's not to love? The end product however...
What doesn't: ...is resounding disappointment. First and foremost is the show-within-a-show comes across as downright silly, like a bad syndicated drama from the 1990s with Knepper taking a knife and fork to the scenery and everyone else serving as wooden furniture. In theory that could be a lot of fun - if that was the point - however here "Cult" is lionized to the point of becoming a religion, like it's the love child of "Lost" and "Firefly," run by Hart Hanson and starring Gale Harold. The end result makes the idea of such a fervent fanbase - let alone one that would commit crimes in its name - feel like science fiction in itself.
Even worse, it gives the rest of the show an air of unabashed manipulation as clues practically have neon signs pointing to them and characters neuter themselves without a thought in the name of keeping the mystery going. And yet even with all of the above in mind, part of me still clings to the idea that this could become something. After all a concept like this doesn't survive for seven years - The WB first committed to a script in August of 2005 - without it having some undeniable hooks. Coupled with a likeable lead in Davis, in theory it could stick in the long run. As it is though...
The bottom line: ...it needs a lot of work to get there.