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Review: “Cult, Perfect Body”

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Though he hands off decisions to strangers, Forrest MacNeil is driven by internal urges he neither understands nor acknowledges. In “Cult, Perfect Body,” one hidden motivation surfaces. Throughout the episode, Forest isn’t just determined to complete his tasks. He’s determined to prove other people wrong.


The first assignment of “Cult, Perfect Body” comes from Theo of Oklahoma City, whose odd phrasing bridges the gap between the episode’s two experiments: “I’ve recently saved up enough money to open my own CrossFit gym, so… what’s it like to be a cult leader?” Forrest’s combination of insecurity and hubris is a heady cocktail on its own; mixed first with the devotion of his followers, then with toxic spikes of steroid rage, it’s deadly.

The ease with which Forrest spins Review’s elements into the guiding principles of a cult is both revealing and unsurprising. Review is the framing narrative of Forrest’s life. It’s what he substitutes for free will and predestination both—at least nominally. Forrest still makes choices, many of them self-serving, but he believes with the fervor of a zealot that his own desires are subsumed in service of the show.


And he uses the language of the show to create his new doctrine. “You could lead a five-star life,” he urges potential cult members. He’s dedicated to evaluating experiences by a five-star rating, no matter the cost. Why shouldn’t he expect others to do the same?

Despite portents of doom—from his inspiration board featuring Jim Jones, Anton LaVey, Shoko Asahara, and Dr. Phil to Lucille’s predictions of isolation, exploitation, and rivers of blood—Forrest’s first chapter as a cult leader is “a purely fun and positive experience,” a frolic of singing, dancing, and trust falls, punctuated with celebratory cheers of “One! Two! Three! Four! Five!” in celebration of a five-star life.

Then Mr. MacNeil brings up a past failure, and Forrest takes affront. It’s just a gentle inquiry, but it galls Forrest, who changes course, “determined to prove to him that I could lead a cult as well as anyone.” The next shot replaces the sunny garden romps of the cult’s founding scenes with a nighttime gathering lit only by a bonfire, as Forrest’s demands transform the brightness of the cult’s early days to something darker, more exacting, and—for Forrest—more self-aggrandizing.

Forrest abandons the cult’s games and announces a plan to build a space ark, funding the admittedly futile project with his disciples’ worldly goods. To inspire greater loyalty, he pries out their darkest secrets and pledges to absolve them of sin. Forrest isn’t the first religious figure to encourage confession, then use believers’ secrets against them, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch him blackmail Rachel (Lateefah Holder) with a smile.


Eventually, Forrest declares himself their cosmic father, a position that doesn’t stop him from “placating” wavering followers with sex. (Conveniently, he deems only conventionally attractive young women in need of placating.) But his real mistake is not the arrogance of taking pleasures and possessions, but of undervaluing Mrs. Greenfield, his first follower and second in command.

From the moment Forrest conceives his cult’s philosophy, Mrs. Greenfield knows more than he does. Pointing up at the night sky, he spots five stars in the shape of the letter M. “That’s Cassiopeia. That’s shaped like a W,” she tells him. But he presses on: It’s an M for MacNeil, a sign from the cosmos just for him.


It’s not the last time Forrest misjudges Mrs. Greenfield’s acumen. He gives her control of major projects, makes her the voice of announcements and innovation, and fails to see how much savvier she is at reading people. Fatally, Forrest rebuffs Mrs. Greenfield’s distress that he’s “fellating so many other women,” offhandedly telling her to put herself in his place.

She doesn’t just put herself in his place; she transcends him and his five-star dogma. Showing up with a stolen ATM, firearms, and—most damaging to his position—a six-starred cap, Mrs. Greenfield unseats him as cult leader and exiles him… though only as far as his father’s time-share cottage across the street. Lennon Parham plays Mrs. Greenfield’s shifting tones with consummate skill, from sweetly supportive girlfriend making peace to crisply efficient follower to brash usurper. (“Holy shit, she’s right!” a disciple says, epiphany dawning across his face. “Six is greater than five.”)


The episode’s second question, “What’s it like to have a perfect body?,” gives A.J. Gibbs a perfect chance to throw shade. She’s an expert at backhanded compliments and smiling aspersions, but the contrast between her encouraging gesture toward the veto booth and the insult it implies is a high level of dissimulation even for her. Once again, Forrest takes the slight “as a personal challenge” and resolves to achieve perfection.

A spray tan, some prosthetic teeth, and 40 pounds of silicone muscle implants later (to say nothing of the phalloplasty—Forrest went for “the full package” at Elective Perfection’s surgical offices), Forrest thinks he’s finished, but Grant goads him on. “You look good, but we’re not looking for a good body. We’re looking for a perfect body.” Forrest spent months of oration and plotting to move his followers to abject devotion, but Grant can do it with a glance and a few words. He knows just how to manipulate Forrest’s need to prove himself, spurring him to ever greater grotesqueries.


That need, and a modest taste for spiting those who doubt him, extends in every direction. Misreading Mrs. Greenfield’s disgust for his orange skin and fake smile as sexual jealousy, Forrest says, “that gave me all the encouragement I needed to keep going.”


The episode’s final act draws together the two stories with devasting efficiency. Consumed with chemical rage, humiliated by Mrs. Greenfield, and furious at their incessant drumming (and militia drilling), Forrest storms into the meadow where her cult still resides. His rampage draws fire from cult members, the police summoned by his father’s noise complaint, and the FBI cult squad who arrive with them.

“Don’t shoot the orange hulk! He’s a good boy!” Mr. MacNeil pleads, brandishing his own gun, just before he takes a bullet to the leg. Mrs. Greenfield aims her rocket launcher at Forrest’s massive orange form—only to miss him and instead set fire to the cottage. Finally, Mrs. Greenfield (who remains “Mrs. Greenfield” to the end) dies in a hail of bullets.


Forrest’s in-studio eulogy praises her daring, and by extension, his part in her recklessness. “Considering how little time she had left, I’m grateful that she found the courage to follow her dreams,” he concludes, ignoring the fact that if Mrs. Greenfield hadn’t followed him to California, she would never have been a member of his cult, would never have commandeered his father’s meadow, would never have been riddled by those police bullets.

Forrest is a master at granting absolution, but only to himself. In the early, happy days of his cult, Forrest chants, “I trust you, you trust me!” before his trust fall from the porch. That could be the misbegotten motto of Review. How many people, lives, careers, and homes has it—has he—destroyed? Life with other people is one long trust fall. Forrest MacNeil will always take the plunge, but he can’t be counted on to catch anyone.


Stray observations

  • Forrest’s review: leading a cult, two stars; getting the perfect body, half a star.
  • “Oh, there’s old Chuck Manson! Always nice to see him.”
  • Max Gail’s hesitation and rephrasing is just great: “I’m worried—no, worried is not the right word. I’m wondering-slash-worried that this might turn out just like the model airplane club sophomore year?”
  • Newly deposed, Forrest comes trudging into his father’s cottage. “Just like model airplane club?” “Yeah.”
  • Maybe it’s inevitable that an episode featuring a space ark drops allusions to classic science fiction willy-nilly (not Willy Nilly). As he rhapsodizes about the space ark, Forrest promises to make “the stars our destination!
  • “Die, monster, die!,” Mrs. Greenfield wails at Forrest during his rampage. Die, Monster, Die (loosely adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out Of Space) tells the tale of a researcher whose experiments destroy those closest to him.
  • Forrest’s “Look upon my works and despair!” is more than a dick joke; the fractured quotation from “Ozymandias” hints at yet another mild-mannered experimenter who shattered the lives of everyone around him.