Cult leaders regularly show up on the big screen. “The Master” fictionalized the story of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Then there’s the cult leader who makes a brief appearance in “Bubble Boy.” What you might not know is that charismatic leaders of a certain questionable bent also appear in some of your favorite TV shows. Of course, the darkness with which the movies reflect real life cult leaders is a bit less intense on the small screen. On the other hand, the extended life cycle of a long-running TV series allows occasionally for more complex treatment of cults, their leaders and those who follow them .
Deep Space Nine
For instance, the cult that gets established towards the end of the run of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” must certainly rank as one of the more sophisticated treatments of this phenomenon in all of pop culture, much less television history. What makes “Deep Space Nine” so clearly and unquestionable the richest series in the “Star Trek” canon is its sincere and serious treatment of religion. Deep Space Nine orbits high above Bajor, a planet that takes its religious beliefs very seriously. An extreme sect of the Bajoran religion worships entities called the Pah-Wraiths. If the DS9 cult was merely about the Pah-Wraiths it would have been enough. But the leader of this doomsday cult as the show proceeds toward its conclusion is a war criminal from the race that helped to enslave the Bajorans who has undergone surgery to disguise himself as one of them. The motivation for his rise to leader of the cult what worships the Pah-Wraiths is far too complex to get into here…and that’s exactly why “Deep Space Nine” is not just the best Star Trek series, but also provides the most fascinating glimpse into the power of religious nuttihood.
The Movementarians cult on “The Simpsons” has the power to turn practically all of Springfield–including its Christian leaders–into the kind of powerless zombies of misguided belief that you recognize when you watch followers of L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones or the NRA. What may be most interesting is that satiric barbs pointed toward a cult not terribly far removed from Scientology seem to be surprisingly less deadly than some of the satire “The Simpsons” has aimed at established religions. Probably mere coincidence that the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright, is a leading figure in Scientology. You shouldn’t be surprised that the leader of the Movementarians turns out to be a money-grubbing fraud, but this ending may perhaps contain a big more of an unexpected element when you consider that Cartwright apparently did not raise any issues with that ending.
King of the Hill
The animated series that used to follow “The Simpson” did one episode in which Hank Hill’s wife and her niece fall into a cult that uses a college sorority as the means for recruitment. The cult on “King of the Hill” doesn’t really have a name nor do we ever get a glimpse of its leader, but there appears to be a rare feminist component involved since it is distinctly anti-male. One can assume that the unseen leader is named Jane since everybody who joins this cult that denies individuality in all its forms rechristened Jane. The cult episode of “King of the Hill” effortlessly and subtly proposes that the real power of cult leaders rests upon exploiting the deepest emotional scars of people as a means of making them question their individuality.
“The X-Files” features a number of episodes about cults, but the best is probably “The Field Where I Died.” The Temple of the Seven Stars cult touches upon Jim Jones, David Koresh, the Civil War, transmigration of souls and reincarnation. What most will remember about “The Field Where I Died” will be Kristen Cloke’s remarkable performance as a cult member who reveals a unique relationship with Agent Fox Mulder. What is even more remarkable than Cloke’s performance is that Emmy voters completely overlooked it.
Starsky and Hutch
Cult leaders get to the position they attain as a result of having an almost supernatural ability to manipulate people into doing things they would never otherwise do because they view the leader through a prism of infallibility. What happens when a cult leader is actually arrested by the police? Find out in this atypical episode of “Starsky and Hutch” in which gets kidnapped and held prisoner by the cultists after he arrests their leader. It is up to Hutch to figure out the bizarre clues provided by the cult leader as works to save his partner from the wrath of true believers.