Our Facebook page recently hosted a discussion of this list of cult television shows from Entertainment Weekly. In the discussion, I mentioned that some of the shows on the list (like X-files, Lost, and possibly Doctor Who) along with some suggestions in the group (mostly Breaking Bad) weren't “cult” shows and shouldn't be on the list. Since this was met with some skepticism, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what we mean in popular culture studies when we use the term “cult” to categorize a work of art. Here are the basic criteria for categorizing something as a “cult” object.
The work has an enthusiastic, dedicated, cult-like following.
The work gained this following after it was in general release.
The work contains subversive, counter-culture themes.
The work is generally not highly thought of by traditional critics or the general public.
Being a fan of the work marks the enthusiasts as outside the mainstream.
Some critics would say only the first criteria is important. If a film has a cult-like following, it is a cult film. I think this defines the term down to the point that it is meaningless. Because of that, the second criteria is an important qualifier, I believe. Shows like Firefly and Better off Ted saw their popularity explode after they were off the air. Those are textbook cult phenomenons in the way a water-cooler show like Breaking Bad can't hope to be. Any show that becomes part of the zeitgeist while it is still on the air is more likely to see its “cult” of followers shrink over the years rather than grow—see Lost as a perfect example of this effect.
The third criteria was a huge part of the original coining of the term “Cult Movie.” If you picked up any of the seminal books on the “cult classic” phenomenon (and I recommend Danny Peary's Cult Movies series as a starting point), you would find them focused on exploitation films, graphic horror, sex, and the avant-garde. Any show that plays with the same themes and tropes as mainstream works could hardly be called cult. One of my classmates in my undergrad writing program used to say “If it wouldn't piss off or gross out my mom and dad, it isn't a cult classic.” I think I agree with him.
The fourth criteria on the list is likely the most controversial and the one most in flux. Traditional critical venues are now consistently out-shouted by the amateur and enthusiast press, and the line between mainstream and enthusiast press is getting so blurry that this criteria might soon become inconsequential. However, there will always be the element of “I see something in this work that other people are too blind to see” in the term cult. If it's on every top ten list ever thrown together, it might not be a cult item anymore (I'm looking at you Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
In the end, the final criteria might be the most telling. Imagine yourself mingling at a cocktail party (clearly catered by the Party Down crew). You are surrounded by people whose opinions matter to you. Now, imagine saying out loud “[blank] is the best television show ever made.” If in your imagination, all those people would just nod their head in approval and grunt “could be,” then whatever you said wasn't a cult show. If you don't find yourself cringing a little in anticipation of the backlash, it isn't a cult show. If you know you will need to stand your ground to defend your point-of-view, and if that feels to you akin to defending the honor of a loved one, then, and maybe only then, are you part of a “cult.”