Having targeted young females in recent years, with some success but by no means becoming a big destination for TV audiences, the CW Network is looking to expand its audience reach with some shows intended to rope in the fellas. Last fall’s new show Arrow indicated that intent, and the new show Cult is another try.

Unfortunately, the fact that Cult airs on Fridays (8 EST), increasingly a dead zone on network TV, suggests the attempt to reach a new audience may be halfhearted. It means the network risks little should the show fail, but also gives Cult not much of a chance to reach an audience, especially young people, who will undoubtedly all be at high school and college basketball games or other such salutary activities on Friday nights.

The show has some interesting elements. The main hook is that it centers on a cult built around a CW TV series named . . . Cult. It’s a decently clever idea, and self-referential television does have some history of success, though it’s not everybody’s cuppa. Such conceptual material tends to work best in comedies such as the pioneering Burns and Allen Show, the classic SCTV, and the redoubtable Saturday Night Live.

Cult seems about to veer in that direction at times, especially with the attempt at a tagline, repeated a few times by different characters: “Well, hey, these things just snap right off.” It’s weird and a bit sinister, to be sure, in that its its meaning is unexplained thus far and it tends to precede a character’s death. Yet it also sounds a bit sillier than I think the show’s producers intended.

The story is reasonably complex. The protagonist, a newspaper reporter named Jeff Sefton, is searching for his troubled brother, Nate, who disappears in the first episode, leaving behind a blood-soaked chair in his apartment. The sister of the main character on the show-within-the-show (SWAS), named Meadow, is also missing, in the narrative of the SWAS—and this is where things really get weird and possibly headache-inducing for the unwary: numerous phone calls and texts from the ostensibly fictional Meadow are found on the ostensibly real Nate’s discarded cell phone.

A search for meanings is central to the show’s story lines. Hardcore fans  of the Cult SWAS believe that there are messages to them encoded within the show. They gather at an underground cafe and on obscure websites seeking clues to . . . well, we don’t know what it’s all about at this point. Perhaps there is a real cult run by the SWAS’s cult leader (played nicely by TV villain par excellence Robert Knepper), perhaps not.

Nate is one of the obsessive followers of the show. Visiting the set of the Cult SWAS in search of information, Jeff meets Skye, a twenty-something researcher (of fashionably ambiguous ethnicity) working for the show, and she introduces him to the weird underground of role players who reenact the show’s scenes, as Nate seems to have been involved in these goings-on.

Skye’s father, by the way, was a TV news reporter who disappeared while working on a story about union corruption. That’s a rather interesting switch from the usual TV villain, the evil corporate overlord.

Accompanied by the comely Skye, Jeff sets off in search of Nate. This promptly leads the couple to a cottage from which numerous young people happen to be fleeing in terror at the very moment the two arrive (good thing they weren’t delayed by traffic, or we’d have missed all the excitement), and to a woman who says that she knows Nate.

This woman informs Jeff and Skye that Nate’s “not all right,” and promptly commits suicide by shooting herself in the head as they look on aghast.

Meanwhile, the police detective investigating Nate’s disappearance, a bald African-American female, hates Jeff because he invented an alleged source in a newspaper story that led to the corruption convictions of six Washington, D.C., police officers. (They were indeed corrupt, we are told, but of course that doesn’t justify Jeff’s lie.) Later we find out that she is a member of the cult.

Thus the pieces are in place for a somewhat interesting mystery, but unfortunately the main characters, Jeff and Skye, don’t have much charisma. Neither of the two has any particularly interesting character traits or personal interests, and they don’t seem to have much chemistry together, romantic or otherwise. Jeff is intensely earnest, and Skye is rather likable but bland. They do not appear to be people whom audience members will rush to see every week. Even Knepper is less interesting than usual, as the attempt to keep him enigmatic undercuts his persuasiveness as a villain.

The obvious intent to keep several story elements a secret from the viewers thus seems to be doing harm to both the story lines and the characterizations. And these, of course, are the essence of TV success: people we want to see every week, doing interesting things. Jeff and Skye are busy looking into possibly interesting things, but the characters aren’t interesting in themselves, and we don’t know enough about the background of the story to enjoy its full significance.

Whether the actors and other creative people can make these elements work will likely determine whether anybody ultimately cares what happened to Nate, what the cult is all about, and whether Cult survives. Right now I’d suggest not betting on it.