Funny thing about a cult: It doesn’t typically look like a cult when you first lay eyes on it. Initially, the religion, group or movement seems like something easy and generous; familiar and inspiring; comforting and honest. That’s how it gets its hooks in you, and that’s exactly how “The Path” should snare a new following for Hulu in the coming months.
Starring the attractive and talented trio of Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy, “The Path” begins in a somewhat similar fashion to “Friday Night Lights” — which is no coincidence, considering Jason Katims served as executive producer for both. Set in a small northeastern community, we slowly become familiar with the strange but identifiable actions of Meyerism, as observed primarily through the Lane family. Eddie (Aaron Paul), a convert with a troubled past, and Sarah, who was born into a Meyerist family, are trying to raise their two children in what they insist is a “movement” and not a “cult” (as outsiders, or “receptives,” as they’re referred to in the series, often label it). They’re calm, rational and loving people who are focused on finding and living in “the light” found by climbing a metaphorical “ladder.”
Now, that may sound a little bit more out there than getting to know a football coach and his family in Dillon, TX, but both shows share an intimacy in presentation that makes you feel like you’ve been there before. The natural lighting and lived-in environments lend an authenticity to everything from the framing to the characters, even as the warning signs start to go off. Homes look normal (other than that ominous wooden golden eye hanging on the wall). Gatherings feel like a church service (other than the gates “guarding” the entrance). People seem pretty nice (until they throw you in a windowless room and lock the door).
“The Path” takes its time exposing these flaws. Jessica Goldberg — who worked on “Parenthood” with Katims prior to creating this, her first series — treats her audience as “receptives”: people who may have peeked at “The Path” out of sheer curiosity and need to be treated just right if they’re going to convert. While the first episode certainly sets up the season’s largest arcs — primarily the complicated love triangle and power dynamic between its three protagonists — much like the uninitiated, it’s hard to see the path until you’re much further up the ladder.
Once you find it, though, you’re hooked. You may not even know how far you are until it’s too late to look back — not that you’d want to. “The Path,” based on the full first season provided for review, is an expertly constructed, beautifully shot and impeccably acted piece of television worthy of the hype Hulu has helped build around it. But more than that, it’s a series addressing issues of faith more directly than any in recent memory. Few programs have had the nerve to honestly discuss religion, warts and all, and even though Katims has a track record of incorporating more spiritual discussion than most, his past shows have primarily dealt with political repercussions (like with Tami Taylor’s counseling fallout in Season 4 of “FNL”).
“The Path” is more concerned with the building blocks of what makes a religion acceptable, sustainable and good. Herein lies the true beauty of the new hour-long drama: While its participants are undoubtedly misguided to varying extremes, the actual practices of the movement are as pure, honest and productive as any other
religion movement. Goldberg’s series isn’t merely trying to show us what it’s like to be indoctrinated into a cult, but what faith in anything can become when it’s corrupted.
Goldberg has been adamant in early interviews that “The Path” is not about Scientology and, to be fair, its plot focuses exclusively on a unique, new and entirely fabricated religion. But the similarities are striking between Meyerism and what informed citizens have come to identify as one of the world’s most dangerous cults. Yet the various interpretations of the movement, as exemplified by the three central characters, should force viewers to question preconceived notions of organized religion, no matter what their background may be. The devout might see troubling parallels between what Cal (Hugh Dancy), Sarah and Eddie get caught up in and their own established practices, while the non-believers may notice how real good could come from similar disciplines functioning under a little less austerity.
Dancy is particularly effective in toeing the line between master manipulator and a lost believer. He finds layers upon layers within Cal, the leader of the compound, making him a villain you never trust but have trouble hating. There’s something debased within him that’s beyond his grasp, and, even though it’s thoroughly explored in later episodes, Dancy maintains an aura of mystery around him that makes you believe how others could find him addictive.
The same may not be said for the show itself. Hulu has chosen to release “The Path” weekly, which is in line with its past policy but could prove detrimental to a series in need of immediate exposure. There’s a reason networks don’t typically talk about faith in these terms, and viewers may shy away from the series if they’re at all uneasy after the first two episodes. I encourage everyone to try to stick it out. This is one cult that actually pays out in the end.
The first two episodes of “The Path” are available now on Hulu. Subsequent episodes will be released each Wednesday.