There comes a time in the life of every TV show when the writers run out of ideas and decide to inject some drama into their show with some unexpected cult plotlines. Either a beloved character will get sucked into a group that’s similar to one of the world’s many active cults or in the case of a show like Law & Order, the detectives will end up investigating a cult. Some shows, like Millennium, were built around the concept of a cult, so it’s not weird for them to deal with the day to day of cult life. But family friendly shows with cults in them always felt out of place in the Friday night lineup.
There are so many weird ways cults have been in TV shows and none of them feel natural. Even during the best times cults popped up in TV shows, a character always has to pretend that the cult has existed forever and that the audience is just now hearing about it. Cults randomly popping up on your favorite program are a bit like when a familial relations plotline would sneak onto a TV show; it’s always unexpected and rarely welcomed. Usually when a TV show decided to veer off into a cult plotline, that spelled certain doom for the quality of the show. There are a few shows that managed to get away with embedding a cult in their universe without doing any irreparable harm to the quality of the show, and the following round up will attempt to parse the bad from the good while helping you decide whether or not you should be worried about the cult in discussion.
Leave it to The Simpsons to write a scathing send up of Scientology, Raelism, and Fox Broadcasting while crafting one of the funniest 30 minutes of television of the '90s. In "The Joy of Sect" a new religious movement known as Movementarianism makes its way into Springfield and claims Homer into their fold before converting everyone in the family except for Marge. What follows is a really interesting dig into the way that cults recruit unsuspecting victims through repetition and by breaking them down until they give in an join. Somehow the episode also manages to get in an accurate look at deprogramming when Marge is forced to get physical when she tries to break Homer out of the Movementarian's spell.
From 1 - 10 How Worried Should You Be About This Cult: 5
In the out of nowhere Season 4 episode "Cult Fiction" Shawn (Rider Strong) finds himself thinking about life after high school when he performs poorly on one of Mr. Turner's tests. Mr. Turner reprimands Shawn in front of Cory and Topanga, and that totally messes with the impressionable teen's head. While in this impressionable and vulnerable state, Shawn meets Sherri, a teen who offers a judgment free hangout at The Centre. All of the teens in The Centre drink coffee, play video games, and talk like zombies. They also don't laugh or listen to music. It's pretty boring as far as cults go.
As far as episodes of Boy Meets World go, this one feels like a summer course on existentialism taught by a middle school teacher - which is a good thing. In all of twenty-something minutes, Shawn goes from being all about The Centre's judgment free zone and ditching his friends and family to questioning why God would turn his back on the people he created.
From 1 - 10 How Worried Should You Be About This Cult: 3
It would have been really weird for a storyline about a cult to pop up in the first two seasons of this hit Netflix show about a women's prison. But as the stories of the women of Litchfield Penitentiary continue to evolve, the fictional world inside the prison has actually leaned into multiple cult-like storylines. The most of obvious of these stories involves a flashback to Norma - Red's sometimes mute sidekick - and her life before jail. It turns out that she was involved in a cult that followed a low rent Charles Manson/David Koresh-type who "married" a bunch of women and lived it up until his promises lost their luster.
In a more subtle nod towards a desire for connection to drive us into the arms of a cult, a storyline that plays through Season 5 of the series follows Laura Prepon's Alex Vause as she sits out the riot that's taken over the prison. She begins staying outside for as long as possible and gathers a small group of followers who begin to look up to her despite her frequent requests that they give it a rest.
From 1 - 10 How Worried Should You Be About This Cult: 6/1
Even though Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is a series deeply ensconced within the world of the paranormal, it's still weird to see a cult pop up in such a family friendly show. In the episode "Welcome, Traveler" Sabrina unwittingly pushes her friend Jason into the open arms of an alternate reality loving cult run by a faux Jim Jones type guy named Jim Tom, who claims to be a witch. The whole fake witch thing feels like an unnecessary addition onto an already top heavy premise, but who cares? Jim Tom's whole plan involves robbing unwitting dum-dums blind so he can go on a trip to the Bahamas. Classic cult leader stuff. Sabrina is finally able to prove to Tom's followers that he's not the messiah that he says is and things go back to normal. If it wouldn't have been for this teenage witch, then it's likely that Tom would have continued bilking his followers out of their earthly belongings.
From 1 - 10 How Worried Should You Be About This Cult: 7
#71 on The Best TV Shows to Rewatch