With docuseries about cults becoming more prominent on streaming services, interest in religious and intellectual sects has never been higher. The topic is less prevalent in fictional television; however, a handful of series stand above the rest as the most compelling.
While definitions of what a cult constitutes vary, these programs highlight groups with many of a cult’s primary traits. From mini-series that explore the more extremist beliefs of Mormon sects to shows whose primary characters are fictional charismatic leaders, there have been plenty of shows about cults that are highly rated on IMDb.
10 Aquarius (2015-2016) – 7.0
Set in late ’60s Los Angeles, aquarius focuses on fictional detective Sam Hodiak as he investigates crimes that revolve around Charles Manson. As the show progresses, it becomes clear to the detective that Manson’s influence is growing as his cult becomes increasingly more aggressive.
The show ran for two seasons, during which it was praised for being more than just another retelling of the Manson family’s exploits, and for exploring larger themes of the time including racism, war, and corruption. Led by David Duchovny, the main cast included Gray Damon, Gethin Anthony, and Claire Holt.
9 The Path (2016-2018) – 7.2
Focusing on the fictional cult of Meyerism, The Path, starring Aaron Paul, follows a family at the heart of the organization. However, after returning home to Upstate New York following a spiritual retreat where he experienced a revelation, the father of the family begins to question his faith.
With an ensemble of strong performances led by Aaron Paul in one of his best roles, The Path tackled topics of faith, family, and spirituality throughout its three seasons, and skillfully explored the conflicts that arise between members of alternative religions.
8 The Following (2013-2015) – 7.4
A tense psychological thriller, The Following tracks an FBI agent’s attempt to reign in an escaped serial killer whose assembled cult carries out his will. As the show progresses, more charismatic serial killers come into the fold even after the initial killer’s threats begin to fade.
Starring Kevin Bacon as the FBI agent and James Purefoy as the main serial killer, the show was praised for being one of the most frightening programs on a broadcast network. While its premise was noted as being over-the-top, Bacon and Purefoy’s grounded performances elevated the show above many of its counterparts.
7 Under The Banner Of Heaven (2022) – 7.5
One of the most underrated miniseries according to Reddit, Under The Banner Of Heaven investigates the murder of a Mormon woman and her baby through the lens of a Mormon detective who begins to question his faith. Against the backdrop of 1980s Utah, the show explores what it means to be a modern-day Mormon, warts and all.
While the show drew criticism from some within the Mormon community, it was generally praised for its exploration of the complexities of the Mormon religion and how individuals struggle personally with their faith, particularly through Andrew Garfield’s performance as a man in crisis.
6 Big Love (2006-2011) – 7.6
Big Love, set in present-day Utah, tells the story of a fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy. The show revolves around their lives in and out of the public sphere and their associations with a local fundamentalist compound.
By its third season, Big Love had found its footing, going from mixed reception early on to near-universal acclaim. Despite detractors from the Mormon church, the show was praised for its rich familial tapestries and earnest examination of religion and morality.
5 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019) – 7.6
One of the few comedies with a protagonist who’s been part of a cult, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt digs into the aftermath of the titular character’s rescue from a doomsday group. Not wanting to feel like a victim, Kimmy, uninitiated to most of modern society, moves to New York City to find a new life.
Lauded for its odd and original premise, the show’s ability to highlight feminist perseverance through the use of humorous situations created one of the first popular streaming comedies. Co-created by Tina Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ran for four seasons before getting a final special in 2020.
4 Waco (2018) – 7.9
A dramatization of the 1993 standoff between the ATF/FBI and Branch Davidians, waco details the events from a variety of different viewpoints on both sides of the dispute. The primary focus, however, is on David Koresh, the leader of the cult, and Gary Noesner, the main FBI negotiator on the scene.
Led by Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon in one of his most underrated roles, the show was able to capture the tensity of the complex situation and humanize many of the members who were victims of the incident. While critics discussed the effectiveness of waco‘s execution, they generally agreed that the performances elevated the material.
3 The Leftovers (2014-2017) – 8.3
A supernatural drama set in Mapleton, New York, The Leftovers occurs three years after an event called the “Sudden Departure,” where 2% of the world’s population disappeared without a trace. As a result, mainstream religions have faltered in the wake of the event and many cults have arisen.
The main cults who appear in the show are The Guilty Remnant, a group of white-clothed nihilists who chain smoke, and the following of Holy Wayne, who claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. Initially criticized for its bleak tone, the show became more focused in the following seasons.
2 Orphan Black (2013-2017) – 8.3
Starting in Toronto, Orphan Black begins by following Sarah Manning, a con artist who discovers she’s a clone created by the Neolutionists, a scientific cult aiming to artificially advance human evolution. Manning soon realizes she is also wanted by the Proletheans, a cult who believe clones are an abomination.
Led by Tatiana Maslany, who played several different clones over the course of the show, Orphan Black broke through the Canadian television scene and found an international audience. Thanks in part to its cult following, Orphan Black is set to have a sequel series that will premiere in 2023.
1 The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) – 8.4
Taking place in a dystopian theocracy, The Handmaid’s Tale follows June Osborne, a fertile woman who, due to the drastically low infertility rates around the world, has been subjugated into sexual slavery by the commanders of Gilead. Determined to be reunited with her husband and daughter, the show depicts her attempts to reach freedom.
Applauded for its haunting description of a totalitarian, sexist society, The Handmaid’s Tale won a slew of awards for its first two seasons. While later seasons have been seen as gratuitous by some critics, the show’s messages continue to resonate and expand from episode to episode.
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