Is The CW’s ‘Cult’ the Most Meta Show in Television History?

"Cult": Alona Tal as Kelly/Marti, Robert Knepper as Billy Grimm/Roger Reeves, Matt Davis as Jeff and Jessica Lucas as Skye -- (Photo: JSquared/The CW)

Cult” is a television show about being a fan of a television show. Specifically, it is about the fans of a dark thriller called “Cult” who have taken their fandom far beyond tweeting, and are either reenacting the show’s premise or being sucked into it. If that isn’t already enough of a meta commentary on TV fans in 2013, the show within-a-show airs on The CW and its showrunner is listed as an executive producer in the closing credits.

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“Cult,” premiering on Tuesday, February 19 at 9/8c, tells the story of journalist Jeff Shelton (Matt Davis) whose search for his missing brother, Nate,  leads him to uncover the mysterious community of fans of Nate’s favorite TV show. He is joined on his journey by Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas), a researcher on the show who is convinced that the fictional program may be crossing over into the real world.

At the show’s TCA panel, showrunner Rockne O’Bannon explained why the creative, ambitious series taps into the current pop cultural zeitgeist.”Cult” premieres at a time when Americans are questioning whether filmed violence influences people to become violent in real life. Said executive producer Len Goldstein, “We were really taking a look and asking some questions…about the relationship people have to their shows, which is certainly more pronounced, I think, than ever before.  People watch them certainly more critically.  They’re more interested in them.  There certainly is a fan passion for a certain type of show.  We’re looking at asking questions just generally about the relationship of television to society.”

Watch the Premiere of “Cult” Before It Airs on TV:

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O’Bannon acknowledged that the series was inspired by his experience as the creator of the sci-fi cult hit “Farscape.” “I witnessed the kind of incredible fan passion for a show and the ability of fans to kind of find each other through social media and connect up… It started me thinking what if the show were something with a little bit darker edge and what kind of fans would that then draw?”

Added executive producer Josh Schwartz, “Now you have such access to the people creating and writing those shows and starring on those shows that you also feel as if you can control that conversation as well.  And so when things don’t go the way you have tweeted to the show’s producers or writers or actors, you know, there’s a certain level of animosity that can start to grow.”

O’Bannon chose to list Steven Rae,  the showrunner of the show-within-the show in the closing credits in the hope of blurring the boundaries between the fictional and the real. “What’s normally the entertainment portion of the show is over and now the executive producer credit comes up at the end and now you’ve returned the audience to the real world,” he said.  “To me part of the fun of it is the fact that we’re actually incorporating what normally is the return of the audience back to the real world and keeping that as part of the entertainment.  So I’m hoping that audiences will hook into that and kind of go along for the ride.”

It’s important to O’Bannon that the show-within-a-show has a coherent enough arc that fans can follow it. “Part of the fun is, being someone with an incredibly short-attention-span, the idea that we’re actually presenting two shows at once and there is an episode of the inside show “Cult,” that you can take away.”

Given that chat rooms and message boards play a major role in the show, it’s fitting that the (real) CW has planned an ambitious social media presence for “Cult.”  “What’s interesting to CW marketing is the fact that it isn’t just social media being used to help promote a show, but the show itself is about social media and that sort of connection.  And that the opportunity to kind of, again, break down that fourth wall, if you will, and create a sense of, how real is this interaction with fans and kind of which show are we promoting, ” explained O’Bannon. “CW’s been fabulous in terms of letting us use CW logos on screen.  And we worked with the marketing division a the network to come up with a logo for the show that they would use in promoting the series that we’re up here promoting so that when the show premiered what we would see inside the show promoting ‘Cult’ was what audiences or people driving around will see on the side of buses and in magazines.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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