“The Path” is a slow but steady new drama from Hulu about a family in Upstate New York that is deeply enmeshed in a self-help movement called the Meyerists, a commune with all the telltale signs of being a scary cult. But “The Path” comes on gently rather than sensationally, as subtle as a ring at your doorbell and the offer of an informational pamphlet.
Watching the first couple of episodes is not unlike the strange experience of attending an unfamiliar church, observing the bliss on the faces of true believers and wondering: Do I buy any of this? Do I belong here? It’s also a reminder that all new TV shows are desperate to recruit followers.
I didn’t need much arm-twisting — they had me at Aaron Paul. The “Breaking Bad” star plays Eddie Lane, who first came to the Meyerists as a troubled teen, bought into their principles and wound up marrying Sarah (“True Detective’s” Michelle Monaghan). In the first of 10 episodes (Hulu is releasing the first two on Wednesday; the rest will stream weekly), Eddie has just returned from a retreat in Peru, where founder Steven Meyers (Keir Dullea — yes, of “2001: A Space Odyssey”) ascended a mountain in the 1970s and received a powerful vision of paradise (“the Garden”) along with a set of life instructions that foretell the end of the world.
Post-apocalyptic salvation in the Garden is attainable by achieving ladder rungs of knowledge, as divined by Meyers himself. Eddie has achieved “6R” status (meaning he’s at the sixth rung), but Sarah, who is an 8R, senses a disturbing vibe in her husband. She thinks he had an affair with another member during his trip. After consulting with the movement’s elders (who include her parents), she insists both Eddie and his alleged lover voluntarily submit to Realignment, the primary feature of which includes two weeks of solitary confinement.
Though innocent of the affair, Eddie accepts Realignment in order to hide a more personal secret: He no longer believes in Meyerism. Once he’s locked in his cell (and under the influence of the Meyerists’ hallucinogenic “Juice”), viewers are treated to the full range of Paul’s expressive talent, as he freaks out and pounds on the walls. “The Path” is in many ways just the sort of project the Emmy-winning actor has been searching for, right in Jesse Pinkman’s wheelhouse of weirdness but also a suitable challenge. Despite his punishment, Eddie continues seeking answers from a “Denier” (Alison Kemp), who believes the Meyerists killed her husband.
So what else does “The Path” reveal? Created by Jessica Goldberg (whose writing credits include episodes of the network family drama “Parenthood”) and executive-produced by Jason Katims (whose showrunning credits include “Parenthood” and the superb “Friday Night Lights”), “The Path” works best as an intense psychological study of an extended family whose members equate faith and loyalty with happiness.
Trained to rat one another out for perceived sins and prone to intimidate the Deniers who try to leave the fold, the Meyerist way invites easy comparisons to the Church of Scientology, which might as well add “The Path” to its long list of public-relations headaches of late. Yet Goldberg and company have taken care to imagine a belief system that encompasses the lingo and tactics of quite a few touchy-feely, self-help and religious movements; in its jargon and dialogue, one can hear echoes of EST, the Landmark Forum, the Zendik Farm and a bunch of others.
Though the movement is smallish in size (at one point we learn that the Meyerists have 6,000 active members nationwide), the members seem like everyday, non-threatening hippies and hipsters, which makes it difficult for an FBI agent (Rockmond Dunbar) to persuade his superiors to support an undercover investigation into the Meyerists’ business and recruitment techniques. On the surface, they are fashionable, attractive folks. Eddie and Sarah’s son, Hawk (Kyle Allen), goes to the local high school, where he has fallen for popular girl Ashley (Amy Forsyth), whom he hopes to recruit as a “Possible.” (For now she’s just an “Ignorant Systemite,” or I.S., which is Meyerist lingo for outsiders.)
Beneath the veneer as a Pleasantville, viewers soon figure out that the Meyerists have a dangerous megalomaniac in their midst, Cal Roberts (“Hannibal’s” Hugh Dancy), a 10R who is also a struggling alcoholic and sexual predator, convinced that he’s the heir to the movement. Dancy flares his nostrils and mines his character’s most menacing qualities as he bends Sarah to his will and turns her against Eddie, but his scenes can also veer a little too much toward the ridiculously tormented. (The only one willing to speak truth to Cal is his alcoholic mother — a nice little cameo for none other than Kathleen Turner.)
But it’s Monaghan, as Sarah, who delivers “The Path’s” most complex performance, as a woman who believes deeply in the promises of salvation and fiercely guards her faith, even if it means exile for Eddie. True, it seems as if these people are all looney-tunes, but the pain they inflict on one another is a fascinating approach to the age-old story of relationships.
The Path (10 episodes) First two episodes begin streaming Wednesday on Hulu. New episodes will be available weekly.