'The Path': TV Review

Courtesy of Hulu
Riveting and superbly acted.

This excellent, intriguing new Hulu series starring Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan looks at faith through the eyes of a cult.

In the right hands, faith can be an intriguing thematic element in a storyline because of two prominent, intertwined sentiments that science and sociology say exist in many people: that they are hurting or lost in some way; and that they want to believe in something that can alleviate that pain, give them purpose or clarity.

The Path, Hulu's riveting new drama, works precisely because series creator Jessica Goldberg (Parenthood) and executive producer Jason Katims (Parenthood), pull the levers of belief and doubt so convincingly and have assembled a superb cast, with Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone, True Detective) and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) going all in with exceptional performances.

The Path is yet another strong push from Hulu into original content, having recently launched Stephen King's 11.22.63 with James Franco.

Created and written by Goldberg and shepherded by Katims — two people who know how to deftly explore the human condition as they did so well on Parenthood — there's a solidness to The Path that continues to surprise. The emotional vagaries of faith and happiness are key elements there.

The series revolves around the Meyerist movement in rural, upstate New York. While others call it a cult (the group has a gated compound and its members, and omnipresent white cargo vans, are frequently adorned with the Meyerist logo — which looks like a wheel within an eye within another wheel), the group's members, led by the charismatic Cal Roberts (Dancy), prefer "movement" — a diverse group of people trying to "unburden" themselves and "find the light" in their own lives and in the world.

So, yeah, it's a cult.

But what works so effectively for The Path is that as Goldberg and Katims reveal bits about the more religious tenets of the Meyerists — more than a few of which are decidedly cult-like — they also show how the movement is actually working for its adherents and how those at the forefront actually do have an idealistic desire to change the world for the better.

Seeing both sides and constantly shifting the perspective of the audience in regards to the Meyerists' ideals and actions keeps The Path both inventive and engaging, on top of a bevy of additional storylines layered in.

Paul plays Eddie Lane, a convert to Meyerism who is married to Sarah Lane (Monaghan), a higher-ranking member of the movement who was born into it — her parents were original members dating back to the early 1970s.

Dancy's Cal is currently running things out of upstate New York while the group's founder and "Guardian of the Light," Dr. Steven Meyer, is in Peru (where the group has a retreat), allegedly writing the "last three rungs" of "The Ladder" — the spiritual system that Meyerism is built on.

(If you're wondering, Goldberg has said that she didn't base the "Meyerism" on Scientology, instead crafting the fiction religion out of a number of other faiths, with an emphasis on what would attract a person in some kind of psychic pain, searching for help.)

Shading is essential to The Path. We can see that Cal really does believe in all the tenets, but also that he's becoming a megalomaniac and is twisting the movement to his whims. Dancy is effective at being both ominous and generous, and when The Path gets around to delving into Cal's backstory, Dancy delivers a surprising vulnerability as the series moves Cal forward in his power-grab.

For her part, Monaghan is wonderful at making Sarah a combination of true believer — but with clarity — and then completely believable when "real-life" problems warp her reactions.

But it's Paul's Eddie who really helps anchor The Path because of his clear doubts (although those doubts come to him while on the drug ayahuasca, which the Meyerists use on their retreats and when a member is attempting to advance up the rungs of the religion). In his fugue state, Eddie sees something while in Peru that he can't shake.

Probably not surprising, Paul is great here, re-establishing why viewers loved him as Jesse in Breaking Bad yet able to lose all trace of that character in Eddie. Perhaps it didn't hurt creating some distance by voicing a character in the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman. But it might have more to do with the fact that Paul comes from a very religious family (his father was a Southern Methodist preacher), and he also starred in another excellent series about faith, HBO's Big Love.

Where The Path works best is in establishing that Meyerism may have started as a hippie-esque movement, but has since curdled into a cult as it has become more successful — from six members when it began to nearly 6,000 now. Letting viewers into the darker, cultish side of the movement not only builds intrigue (Cal's attempt to take over is only one of the story planks), it creates opportunities to examine what people will do to be happy — how finding spiritual peace that "unburdens" their minds can blind them to the parts of the religion that anyone else would find weird. For example, the "rungs" in Meyerism: Cal is a "10R," Sarah an "8R" and Eddie, fresh from his mind-bending and possibly mind-changing trip to Peru, has just become a "6R."

As the characters use those descriptions (or when they say they don't eat meat, or when Eddie's son reveals to an outsider that he hasn't heard much popular music and almost nothing of pop culture) it resets whatever bit of "normal" the storytelling allows for as the group helps disaster victims or talks about ecology, etc.

Beyond the stellar acting of Paul, Monaghan and Dancy, The Path has a solid supporting cast: Rockmond Dunbar as an FBI agent investigating the Meyerist movement as a cult; Kyle Allen as Eddie and Sarah's son, Hawk; Amy Forsyth as Ashley, the non-Meyerist teenage girl that Hawk is falling for in a completely believable portrait of teenage life; Sarah Jones as Alison, the outcast former Meyerist who believes the cult killed her husband; and Emma Greenwell as Mary, the abused addict who was pimped out by her father before being "saved" by the Meyerists when they beat FEMA to a disaster site and rescued her.

Fans of Parenthood won't find it surprising that Katims and Goldberg can smartly write about teens and wounded people in ways that are believable and don't pander; how they can dissect Eddie and Sarah's troubled marriage or intelligently tell the story of a cult from both sides.

Just when you think the series will focus to its detriment on one theme, it weaves somewhere else to start fresh. Even when the series strays (it's difficult to make ayahuasca trips anything but "druggy" and cult-like stuff often seems, well, predictably "culty"), it quickly retracts. Hell, the series even makes the younger-looking-than-their-age Paul (36) and Monaghan (39) believable parents to a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old when, at first glance, that might be a stretch.

There's a lot to like about The Path, from the strong visual sense of place that director Mike Cahill established in the first two episodes to its theoretical take on faith, and of course the exquisite acting and deft writing.

The Path has 10 episodes in its first season and rolls out the first two episodes on March 30, and then one each following week.

Studio: Universal TV
Cast: Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, Hugh Dancy, Rockmond Dunbar, Emma Greenwell, Kyle Allen
Creator: Jessica Goldberg