Cult TV. Sounds a little sinister, but it’s fairly harmless, other than the problems associated with any obsession. People find an under-the-radar television show they embrace in a big way and, in time, discover like-minded folks with whom they build a community created by mutual passion. In the niche-laden 21st century, you can find a devoted following for almost every pop-culture manifestation imaginable. Although not always the case, there are now blithering fans that will go to extremes — and elaborate annual conventions — to celebrate their favorite program or save it from the cancellation axe.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Soon we can tune in to some shows resurrected, in large part, by fan devotion. Off the air since 2002 after a nine-year run and seemingly defunct after two middling feature-film sequels, The X-Files will be back on Fox in January. The speculative fiction conspiracy theory extravaganza, featuring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents investigating the unexplained and extraordinary, will be a miniseries with its two leads on board and a lot of the original supporting cast returning. The show’s followers are rabid, to say the least, and their enduring ardor contributed to the revival.
David Lynch’s surreal murder mystery Twin Peaks, the very definition of a cult TV show, is back in production for a run on Showtime, purportedly in 2016, despite being dumped by ABC without resolving a cliffhanger after 30 freaky episodes during the 1990–91 seasons. With Kyle MacLachlan as straight-laced, cherry-pie-and-coffee-loving FBI agent Dale Cooper, the plot revolved around Cooper’s inquiry into the grisly death of a teenage girl in a quaint but somewhat twisted Pacific Northwest logging town. Its quirks and catchphrases blazed through the zeitgeist, but not enough people were tuning in to convince the network to keep it going. Still, its cult never died, and the continuing love for Twin Peaks was enough to convince Showtime to bring it back with MacLachlan and most of the surviving players from the first run — 25 years later.
On the other hand, The Mindy Project, the rom-com sit-com starring Mindy Kaling as a smug millennial career woman, was cut loose by Fox this past year because of faltering viewer numbers, but a new season of episodes is being streamed on Hulu. In this case, a burgeoning content provider is getting a ready-made show with a built-in audience. It’s economically expedient. Meanwhile, a staunch group of enthusiasts couldn’t save Hannibal, the hour-long drama inspired by the cannibalistic serial killer character Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs. It’s now off the broadcast menu, though you never know. It could be served up again sometime.
TREKKIES TO THE RESCUE
The first true example of a cult springing up around a television show was probably the fan base that grew out of the original Star Trek on NBC in the 1960s. These individuals — derided as freaks and geeks by those who didn’t buy into the noble swagger and liberal vision of a galaxy-spanning future — became known as “Trekkies,” perhaps insultingly. Eventually, the Star Trek believers owned the nickname and had an impact on the show’s destiny. The Trekkies started a successful letter-writing campaign to keep the ratings-challenged series on the air for another season when NBC was planning to cancel after two years.
With a subsequent TV cartoon show, four different live-action TV series, an ongoing set of feature films (recently rebooted), novels, comic books, merchandise, and conventions, the Trekkies (or Trekkers) got the last laugh. Star Trek, which predated the ubiquitous and highly regarded Star Wars transmedia property, is now an undisputed part of Western popular culture. So much for cult status.
On the bubble
In the wake of Star Trek, we’ve seen fan crusades of various types and degrees of success to save other shows on the bubble. The affection for these sometimes marginal creations is profound, even when the programs are not. There have been many science fiction and fantasy programs among them — Quantum Leap, Jericho, Roswell, Sliders, Reaper, Pushing Daisies, and Angel — and animated cartoons, including Family Guy, Futurama, Animaniacs, and Kim Possible, which says something about the driven nature of the people who like those types of programming. But that would discount similar movements to save the woman-oriented 1980s cop drama Cagney & Lacey; Felicity, about the romantic travails of a college girl; the surreal family comedy Arrested Development; and Veronica Mars, the escapades of a wisecracking teenage girl detective.
Even if I enjoy finding and hailing the virtues of obscure television delights, I never thought of myself as a cult member, with all of the unpleasant connotations suggested by the label. I’m not a joiner, nor one to follow leaders — especially not megalomaniacal psychos with messiah complexes. Yet I will admit to being an aficionado of cult TV — one of the proactive disciples watching, absorbing, and championing every episode of his favorites, whether mainstream or not.
A BINGE OF MY OWN
A week ago, I binge-watched writer-director Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly with considerable glee. This unlikely mix of outer space adventure and wild western is a marvel of deconstructed genre clichés, pulpy heroism, evolving character arcs, dryly humorous dialogue, and a bit of ragged, roguish romance amid the sci-fi and horse opera action. Set after a rebellion is quelled in a solar system colonized by humanity, it ran for one truncated season on Fox in 2002. I capped off my spree by revisiting the feature film Serenity, which brought the rag-tag, space-faring Firefly crew to the big screen for continuing adventures — or closure, depending on the box office receipts.
While the profits garnered by Serenity did not merit a sequel (according to the studio of record), the fact of the movie’s existence is very much the result of a cult that sprung up around Firefly — the Browncoats, named for the long leather duster worn by the ship’s captain and his fellow former rebel soldiers. Their righteous fervor was in some part spurred by the way the Fox network mishandled the show: dooming it to the Friday night ratings ghetto, running episodes out of order (as in not starting with the double-length pilot that sets up the universe of the series and the relationships between the principal characters) and canceling it before its entire run of 14 installments was aired. But phenomenal DVD sales, courtesy of the Browncoats, plus online petitions, e-mails, and letters, moved Fox to at least green-light the movie. And the entire project continues to be cherished in many quarters (including my own) today.
I’d go on a little longer about the topic, but I don’t want to miss the latest edition of the beloved long-running British sci-fi/fantasy/adventure program Doctor Who, then join the online message threads about it right after I see it. It’s been on the air in one form or another since the early 1960s, and it’s the BBC’s biggest moneymaker worldwide, so it’s in no danger of going off the air any time soon. Nonetheless, a loyal viewer has to have his priorities in order.