In his novel "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah," author Richard Bach (best known for "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"), writes, "If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats." That idea is taken to an extreme in the drama "Cult," premiering Tuesday, Feb. 19, on The CW.
The idea of a story within a story is not new, but in "Cult," there's the "fictional" world, the "real" world and a world that lies somewhere between the two. When the events and characters of a tale enter the mind of a reader, listener or viewer, they blend with the memories, attitudes and personality already there, creating a version of the story that exists for that person alone. But some stories, for whatever reason, have a strong influence on many minds. While it's usually benign, there's always that chance that somebody is going to go from simple fan to true fanatic.
"Cult"Premieres 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, on The CW
Executive produced by Rockne S. O'Bannon, Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage and Len Goldstein, "Cult" stars Matt Davis as Jeff Sefton, a journalist trying to find out what has happened to his younger brother, Nate. Known for obsessions, Nate appears to have gone over the top in his attachment to a hit TV show called "Cult," which he believes will cause him harm. When Nate suddenly disappears, Jeff joins forces with researcher Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas) to find out whether the show's rabid fans have taken their fixation to the extent of actual murder.
Robert Knepper plays the dual role of actor Roger Reeves and his TV character, charismatic cult leader Billy Grimm. Alona Tal plays actress Marti Gerritsen, who plays Billy's former lover, Kelly Collins, who left Grimm's cult to become an LAPD detective. As the popularity of the show grows, trouble seeps into the lives of Roger and Marti until they're not sure whether being stars of this particular project is worth the cost.
As the compellingly evil Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell in Fox's drama "Prison Break," Knepper saw the sudden fame that engulfed that show's star. "I'm always so grateful for what I learned from 'Prison Break,'" says Knepper, "which I don't think Roger has learned yet, is you can't take it too seriously. You can't buy into it too much.
"I'm not saying he does buy into it ... I can't imagine what it would have been like to be Wentworth Miller, to have the whole world following you."
Meanwhile, pulling the strings behind the scenes of "Cult" is its reclusive creator and show runner, Steven Rae. O'Bannon first wrote "Cult" several years ago for the now-defunct WB network, long before the rise of social media, which has turned show runners -- the writer/executive producer in charge of the production and creative direction of a show -- into celebrities in their own right. From Kurt Sutter of FX's "Sons of Anarchy" to Dan Harmon, late of NBC's "Community," and Damon Lindelof of "Lost," Twitter has allowed show runners to interact directly with fans. At the same time, Twitter has allowed actors to exchange ideas with fans -- even if some still choose to hide behind a character. Rather than tweeting under his own name, Davis is known on Twitter as ErnestoRiley.
"I wanted an alias," says Davis. "I wanted a platform. I just wanted it to be a creative writing project, so I could say whatever I wanted."
Unexpectedly for O'Bannon, "Cult" resurfaced after a long hiatus and re-entered a very different TV landscape. Whether social-media interactivity is ultimately a good or bad thing depends on the show runner -- and on the fans. But in "Cult," Steven Rae doesn't tweet or even speak, which makes him something of an anomaly in today's TV world.
"They are out there," says O'Bannon of the famous show runners, "but that's not to say there couldn't still be one, who wants to maintain the sense of mystery. You could argue that Rae wants to do that in reaction to social media.
"It distinguishes him and his show, that he's so mysterious, and plus, the show has got a mysterious side."
Referring to the enigmatic -- and ultimately nonexistent -- character at the heart of the hit 1995 movie "The Usual Suspects," O'Bannon says of Rae, "He's our Keyser Soze."
As to whether Rae will make an appearance "in the flesh" sometime in the first season of "Cult," O'Bannon says, "I'm going to say, 'Yes,' and then, later, you'll know why I said that with a 'Yes.'"
Whatever Rae's fate, there is one network executive who has a less-than-graceful exit in the first episode of "Cult."
"In talking to network people," says O'Bannon, "they're all going, It's me, isn't it?'"