Nerds like a lot of different things, but there may be nothing quite as quintessentially nerdy as cult movies and television shows. If you’re not familiar with the particular culture surrounding these, here’s what’s going on.
What are Cult TV Shows and Cult Movies?
A ‘cult’ series is one with a dedicated following that persists long after the series itself has ended. The fundamental difference between a cult series and a classic series is that members of a cult fandom tend to explicitly recognize themselves as part of a distinct group of fans. They often give themselves a name (like ‘Trekkies’ for fans of Star Trek), but this isn’t required for a cult fandom to exist.
Most cult followings spring up because there’s something about the franchise that resonated with a group of people. It could be the universe the story takes place in, a group of characters, or even the desire to see the series continue if it was canceled before the story reached a proper ending.
Cult series may be introductions to nerd fandom in general, especially if people who are fans of one series start branching out and looking for similar works.
Now that we know what cult series are, let’s look at some of the more famous works to come out in recent decades which have been classified as some of the best cult tv shows. Now, while we’re focusing on television shows below, note that many of these series also received one or more films. Some of these scored better than others, but overall, the movies are probably not the best place to begin if you’d like to experience any of these stories.
Cult Series #1: The X-Files
Running from September 1993 to May 2002 – and revived starting in January 2016 – the X-Files followed the lives of two special agents working for the FBI. One of these – Agent Fox Mulder – was an expert profiler and dedicated believer in supernatural, alien, and mystical events. However, rather than accepting any wild idea that came his way, he was focused on objectivity.
His foil in the series was Agent Dana Scully, a trained doctor, and skeptic who provided rational explanations for the often-bizarre phenomenon the two encountered.
The show was well-received, and its popularity is believed to have derived in part from its frequent use of new technology and the fact that the internet was growing at the same time it aired, allowing fans to find each other and form a larger community.
Cult Series #2: Twin Peaks
Running from April 1990 to June 1991, and again from May 2017 to September 2017 in a new season, Twin Peaks was a mystery drama series that, in subsequent years, was often rated among the best shows of all time.
Much like the X-Files (which aired after the end of Twin Peaks), the FBI is a major part of this series. In this case, Special Agent Dale Cooper takes the role of the protagonist as he investigates the murder of Laura Palmer, a local high school student, in a town filled with supernatural, horror, and soap opera elements.
Cult Series #3: Wild Wild West
Wild Wild West was a television series running from September 1965 to April 1969. At this point, western series were fading in popularity while spy shows were becoming more prominent, and creator Michael Garrison ultimately decided to mix the two.
The main plotline followed the lives of James West and Artemus Gordon, members of the Secret Service who worked to protect the president, handle insane villains threatening America and solve various types of crimes. The show had a distinct number of fantastic elements, including technology that didn’t exist at the time. However, much to the regret of many fans, the show was canceled due to concerns about violence on television.
Cult Series #4: Lost in Space
Lost in Space was one of the most popular cult TV shows to air in the 60’s, with 83 episodes airing between September 1965 and March 1968. The story follows two main groups – the Robinson family and Dr. Zachary Smith. The latter began as the bumbling villain who caused the Jupiter 2 starship to go off-course, but eventually became more of a protagonist as he saw the error of his ways.
Unfortunately for fans, the story was left unfinished at the end of the third season.
Cult Series #5: Star Trek
Crossing the line between mainstream hit (at least nowadays) and cult favorite, there isn’t a lot to say about Star Trek that most people don’t already know. That said, the original television series – running September 1966 to June 1969 – was only about average ratings-wise. This may have had something to do with the extensive philosophical tone of the series, as well as the deliberate subversion of racial stereotypes and biases common to the time.
Cult Series #6: The Hulk
Despite a recent surge in popularity from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Incredible Hulk has always been something of an outlier in comics. The original comic series only ran for six issues between May 1962 and March 1963, but the character started to appear in other comic stories and eventually received more series dedicated to him as his popularity grew.
The Hulk is a rare example of a cult hit with real staying power. He’s rarely been among the most popular characters, but he’s always been popular enough to stick around (or at least bring back), giving fans more of the character on a regular basis.
Cult Series #7: The Six Million Dollar Man
This series started as a series of television movies running from March 1973 to November 1973, followed by a television show that aired from January 1974 to March 1978. The series finished with a several more television movies, the last of which aired in November 1994.
The protagonist, Steve Austin, was an astronaut who was badly injured during a test flight. His physician had the idea to try and rebuild him with robotic parts, and after somewhat reluctantly agreeing, he began working for the Office of Scientific Intelligence as a spy, agent, and general problem-solver. Unlike Star Trek, the series was quite popular during its initial run (coming in at #7 on television in 1976-1977) and has remained an icon of 70’s nerd culture ever since.