'The Path' Creator Discusses the Rise in Religious TV Programming, Season 2

Jessica Goldberg says a mix of audience desire and studio flexibility is leading to more shows tackling the subject of religion.
Greg Lewis/Hulu

When The Path first launched on Hulu last March, the Aaron Paul-led drama about a new-age spiritualist movement called Meyerism was in a very small group of religious series.

But in the year since, religion has gone from being a subject that writers avoided to a topic many are tackling head-on. There's OWN's megachurch drama Greenleaf, A&E's unscripted docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, as well as E!'s upcoming scripted series The Arrangement, which includes a mysterious group called The Institute of the Higher Mind that has drawn comparisons to Scientology.

As The Path's season two premiere approaches, THR talked to showrunner Jessica Goldberg about this hot new trend for a very old concept, as well as what to expect this season.

Religion long has been such a touchy subject when it comes to pop culture. But we’re starting to see that The Path isn’t the only show that’s addressing it. Why are more writers interested in that, and why do you think more studios are willing to take a risk on that kind of material?

I guess once [studios] realized that it’s not going to turn people off, then people take the chance, and I think there’s been a few shows and movies that have been exploring faith. There’s interest in the subject. It’s certainly thematically, in the whole world right now, a very pressing subject, so writers are always going to be drawn to what’s happening in the world.

Is there something about the era that we’re living in that’s drawing people to this subject matter or is it a byproduct of so-called peak TV?

I’m so interested in that myself, in that question. Is it because we’re allowed to be more daring in our storytelling on TV now and talk about more taboo subjects that there is more stuff on that subject, or is it that with [groups like] ISIS and extreme faith in America that it’s just becoming a more and more pressing topic?

When it came to creating the show and finding a home for it, was it easier for you that you were inventing a religion rather than basing off of one that we were all already familiar with?

I think probably it was easier. The last thing I would ever want to do is specifically put someone else’s religion down, or someone else’s belief system down, and by making our own we were able to cull from our favorite things about so many religions and also things that were terrifying about religion. I feel much more free as a storyteller to tell the kind of stories we want in a made-up religion. I would feel very nervous talking about the Jewish religion, you know?

Why do you think the subject of grappling with faith and belief and the possible loss of those things makes for such compelling material?

Faith is one of the biggest human questions that we all face. Most people in their lives will go through some kind of questioning at some point in their life. It’s rare to find a person that’s just born into something and then completely stays with it without some sort of grappling. And then people born without it, things happen — someone gets sick, or you have to deal with suffering, or you see something painful in your life. I think because it is such a human question. It’s something we all think about.

It seems like in The Path and other faith-oriented programs, there’s this interest in tackling the topic of how to run a religion. What is it about the intersection between the spiritual and the earthly that pulls you in as a writer?

That is so fascinating to me, to take this thing that’s supposed to be spiritual, internal, that’s probably supposed to be between you and this Maker, and then the need to monetize it, to give it structure, to give it community. I just find that endlessly fascinating. And just watching religions in the world and how they’ve sought to do that, it makes for great drama.

When you’re wrapped up in those struggles, do you run the risk of losing sight of the more spiritual aspects, and is that something we’ll see people struggle with?

Yeah, I think that’s sort of what happens to Sarah’s character in season two. She’s such a zealot in season one. Her belief is definitely the most unshakeable. And in season two, with becoming a leader and seeing some of the gray areas you have to go into to keep something going, she becomes a much more gray believer. You see it all the time with any person who comes into the role of power, it becomes complicated for them to separate, to not get carried away.

Now that we’ve got Eddie (Paul) living on the outside, does that change how much screen time you devote to the depiction of the religion?

It doesn’t really. I think it’s very interesting to see somebody trying to make it in a secular world that has had this structure for so long. But somehow we manage to intersect it. He loves his kids so much, so there’s that debate within the family. And then he is haunted by his own spiritual calling.

What changed in your approach as you headed into season two?

The biggest difference is that I feel like in season one, while you may find aspects of Meyerism really seductive, like the community aspects of it, and the food looks good, I don’t know that you believe in God in season one, and in season two, we definitely left more room for mystical experience.

It seemed like a lot of season one was about this problem of people losing faith in their religion. Does that remain the main spiritual question in season two, or are there other spiritual issues we’ll see people grappling with?

I think it remains a very important question. I think Cal, his journey becomes a lot about atonement. [Sarah’s] journey becomes a lot about this idea of, how do you run a religion? Does it essentially sully your faith, the challenges of keeping something going? And for Eddie, it’s almost like a biblical calling that he starts to hear.

Last year, you wrote in a column for THR about how all these things in your life conspired to make you want to write a show about faith and about religion. Now that you’re a full season in, and further away from those things, do you find yourself as inspired as ever by the subject matter?

I do. I’ve been on a little break, so I was thinking, "Oh, I want to write a movie," and then suddenly with the election, I thought, "This movie doesn’t feel relevant to me anymore." I don’t want to write about this kind of story anymore. And when I look at The Path, I get excited. Because I feel like you can pull from The New York Times and you can pull from things that are happening in the world, and marginalized people where you don’t always get to see their stories. I feel that within this framework, not only faith, but the other kinds of human stories about people searching are very interesting to me, and I’m happy to be part of something that, as we’re going to be grappling with a lot of things probably in the next four years, I’ll get to grapple with them in my creative life.

The Path returns Jan. 25 on Hulu.