Friday, July 12, 2013

Well, Hey, 'Cult' Just Snapped Right Off TV...

So Cult came to an end, and we never did learn exactly what "snaps right off." In fact, the show had the cocky audacity to end the finale episode on that very line that seemed to encompass so much of the mystery in the pilot. But leaving that element dangling as the show drove over a cliff, to never be seen again, wasn't the biggest problem by a long shot. It could be accepted as a throwaway line if something-- anything-- important had been answered. Who is Steven Rae? We still don't know. What is the message he is encrypting or subliminally implanting in his show? We still don't know. The show delivered little answers but only on the things that were distractions from the overarching mystery anyway. It was a not-clever ruse to convince its fans it was providing some kind of sensical story, while not actually resolving anything that really mattered, desperately trying to drag out story for a season two that would not have been deserved if it had been granted. 


I am not ashamed to say that last pilot season, Cult was on the top of my list of favorite scripts, and I had extremely high hopes for the series when it premiered. There was so much room for intrigue and subtext and greater messages, and Rockne O'Bannon had been developing the show for years. Naively, I assumed that meant he had a long and intricate plan for the characters and the story of both the show and the show-within-the-show. But perhaps he had only been fine-tuning the pilot script itself for years because what unfolded after it felt like something being written on the fly by someone who doesn't give modern television audiences any semblance of credit when it comes to intelligence or active viewing-- ironic, given the subject and focus of the show. 

Yes, Jeff (Matt Davis) finally found his brother Nate (James Pizzinato), but he preferred to ignore his brother's addictive nature even after all they had just been through, proving he didn't deserve to be the hero anyway. Actually it was Stuart (Jeffrey Pierce) who I believe should have been the central character, even if as an anti-hero this whole time. But he wasn't even in the pilot, so clearly the show Cult should have been crossed their minds much too late.

Yes, Skye (Jessica Lucas) got answers on her dad-- namely that he was still alive-- but he was such an ominous outline of a mysterious figure it was hard to care one way or the other. Unless he turned out to be Steven Rae, having been "taken" by the cult years earlier when researching them, there was no real story here. So honestly, I'm just going to pretend that's what happened. 

Yes, Jeff and Skye hooked up, but that's not even a situation in which we would say they "finally" hooked up because honestly, it happened off-screen, and did anyone even care about that? There was no chemistry there, and it seemed kind of unfair that he would just be ready to move on because he got the selfish resolution he wanted with his brother being back and not even thinking they should continue on and try to get her answers about her dad. And if he really was a journalist, he should care a little about getting a good story, too, but he just failed at all of those things: brother, friend, blogger. For Jeff, it was all about finishing the little tasks to get to the end goal of finding Nate; there was nothing there to grow or strengthen or honestly even consider his character.

Roger (Robert Knepper) was shot live online during a scene in which a prop gun was replaced with a real one. I admit I spent the better part of the last couple of episodes waiting for him to be punished. After all, Stuart's daughter pledged her allegiance to Roger instead. But all along, the audience had been purposely mislead about Stuart-- or if not outright duped than at least asked to assume certain things. For a while it seemed like his attempts to get close to Roger were to manipulate things that were supposed to happen-- on the show and with the True Believers in their version of the "real" world. Cult set it up to look like Stuart was the bad guy-- that he could even be Steven Rae lurking in plain sight. So when Roger started to refuse to play along, of course he'd need to be "ended." Except, Stuart wasn't the "big bad" after all. The show switched gears to reveal that no, he was just a big ole sap who wanted to find his long-lost parents and was using the show's fans to do so. He had no reason to fixate on Roger, but he began to fixate on the deeper messages within Cult, namely his own father's involvement in them. But then, what was the point of taking out Roger? It doesn't appear there was one other than your stereotypical tension-tugging cliffhanger.

For 12 episodes (assuming you actually are the masochist completionist I am and therefore watched the whole season) we were lead to believe that the parents of the Moonhill cult were the worst people in the world because they left their kids alone to become murderous wretches, when in fact there was a larger organization out there responsible for more bloodshed and perhaps brainwashing. An organization that we never even had an inkling of until the very last literal minutes of the finale. An organization that seemed to use archaic remotes and monikered themselves after Erasmus. Just like when Cult referenced St. Clare, I got momentarily excited that there was going to me some kind of historically or socially relevant commentary to suddenly pop up, but once again it appeared the show grossly missed the realism of the very references upon which it was relying. Erasmus was a humanist who actively tried to reform religion; to imply there is a cult of people out there murdering people in his adopted name is to create a legion of ignorant characters and risk assuming the same of your audience. 

Early in Cult's run, being suspicious of every character about whether or not they were a True Believer was part of the show's charm to know who to trust and who to fear. The introduction of Erasmus would have repeated the same exact theme should there have been more episodes after the name was first spoken. There are probably characters we've already met that could be found out to be a part of the bigger picture, namely the "real life" inspiration for Kelly and probably production Peter (Ben Hollingsworth), who otherwise really had no purpose in this story at all.

And that's the greatest problem with Cult's finale: it really shone a light on everything that came before it that was a good idea in theory and perhaps even on paper but just absolutely terribly executed. You know, like Communism. 

Nate made a discovery when deciphering and decoding the Cult within Cult as well as Stuart's father's journals that television was found to be a tool of great importance because of the messages it could transmit and the audience it could reach. That should be a given; aside from the basic definition of television, subliminal advertising has been around for decades. Even if Cult wanted to ignore that and exist in a universe where the Moonhill cult was the first to figure out such a thing was possible, Cult never pulled the trigger on the mechanics or the motive. There was discussion of Moonhill thinking television was evil because of the way and what it transmitted, but probably because that would completely alienate this television show's actual audience, that was dropped swiftly in favor of the idea that such power was a good thing. Even when Nate found a visual pattern in the shooting style, it was all discussed in such an abstract way, to get any satisfaction out of it you had to assign it your own assumed context and value. You had to read into it the way the fans of Cult were reading into that show. Only that show-within-the-show was established to actually have deeper meaning if you were willing to look for it; it was actually akin to art. Cult, on the other hand, purposely kept everything from the audience and just made you seem crazy for even wanting more.

I was on-set at Cult in late September last year for a middle-run episode. Interestingly it was for Skye's dream sequence episode-- an episode that when I saw it was appalled was actually happening at all. Instead of taking advantage of every precious episode they were actually given and seeding the story with hints and nods at the bigger picture so the at-home audience could be justified for actively looking for clues, we were given full filler. I call this "interesting" now because looking back on the season, it feels like most of it was filler, though admittedly not in as obvious a way, simply because details and twists and even new characters (like the inspiration for Kelly who was truly fascinating but barely a blip because so many people flitted in and out with no importance it was hard to care and assume you wouldn't get burned for caring) popped up out of nowhere and then meandered for awhile before explicitly reaching a conclusion on-screen the audience had probably already assumed. I'll only speak for myself but "surprises" like Roger's girlfriend being Stuart's daughter and Eric Lange being a fake Steven Rae "hired" to mingle with fans were not actually surprising at all. Cult was filming in a bubble when clearly it was the kind of show that needed semi-real time interaction to realize it had to step up its game.

Cult was picked up for 13 episodes but scheduled to premiere mid-season, so they didn't have the benefit of tweaking story, even at the bitter end, when they knew what they may have hoped would be a season finale was actually going to be a series finale. Still, I don't think it's unfair in this day and age to desire more than "tune out television." You have finite hours in your day, and there are literally thousands of stimulants all grabbing for your attention. I don't think it should be too much to ask that when you decide to devote time and energy to a show, you get payoff for your investment and engagement. And honestly, not just at the eleventh hour either, otherwise, what's to stop you from checking out in the middle and just coming back at the very end?

Oh, and by the way, should there be a mishap on a set where an actor gets hurt, let alone shot, a medic would rush to his or her side immediately. So way to go on forgoing realism in every possible arena, show!


10 comments:

Jon McClay said...

Well written! I just finished the last episode of Cult and I completely agree with you!

Jakebob said...

Turns out that "Well hey, these things just snap right off" comes from a Far Side cartoon. Not that that clears things up at all....

Dan Johnson said...

i thought it was clear, at least i picked up on it the first time watching it that the mother of the main charicters sister in the show, the one that was the inspiration for kelly was stephen ray. She picked up the gun put it in her purse, and snuck outta there, and she was lingering around just as they said he would be. Now why? thats a good question.

PinkChampagne said...

Personally, I loved 'Cult' and was so disappointed it ended 1st) at all, and 2nd) with no resolution. It kept me glued to my computer for all 13 episodes. And letting it end the way it did is the reason I won't be watching any more new CW shows. They disappointed me when they dropped 'Ringer', irritated me when they disposed of 'Emily Owens, M.D.,' and just pure pissed me off when they unceremoniously dumped 'Cult' the way they did. The CW lost me as a viewer, and I know they couldn't care less - but I feel okay about dropping them as a source of new programming. Lots of other channels out there that'll give me what I want.

Strange Party said...

DVDs of some famous older shows like ER, Star Trek and The Simpsons got sold at a tremendous rate which led to more and more people asking what happened to the other shows they once loved.
funniest tv shows

Brandi Zorn said...
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Brandi Zorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff Moldowan said...

I m done with cw they suck. They could have atleast let u know what was gonna happen. Their even blowing supernatural. Hey cw u need better writers and decision makers. U guys SUCK.

Nay said...

Just finished Cult and I'm pissed that it ended like that, I kinda felt the convoluted plot wouldn't get finished by episode 13. I should've stopped watching but I couldn't I literally couldn't. This show as bland as the Author puts it was a great suspense machine and I really wanted to know what happened to Skyes dad. The CW sucks as a station because they're all greedy and about money/numbers. Stupid.

Viv said...

This has to be the most unsatisfying "ending" to a show ever. Wow.