Dread and menace sustain The Path, a Hulu series about members of a modern-day cult that practices a religion called Meyerism. Watching it might make you feel as if you’re being hotboxed by church elders who’ve grabbed your attention and are determined to make you convert, no matter what.
And so disorientation and sensory deprivation become elements of style. This show is not just dramatically dark, it’s visually dark. Key scenes play out in silhouette or near-blackness, letting action be articulated by the voices of the show’s main characters: Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), the loyal daughter of a second-generation Meyerist family; her husband Eddie (Aaron Paul), a convert from a troubled background who recently got back from a faith-based trip to Central America and has been behaving rather oddly; and Cal (Hugh Dancy), Sarah’s ex-lover, the charismatic preacher who wants to bring the religion out of obscurity and into the mainstream. In one tense scene, the camera follows Eddie as he slowly paces around a room in a continuous circle, until you feel like you’re being hypnotized (and you kind of are).
The imaginative synthesized score, by Will Bates, pulses and hums and thrums and seems to moan or sing at times; it’s layered over action in ways that seem counterintuitive, which makes you unsure quite how to take it. The pilot, which was directed by Mike Cahill (Another Earth), starts by dropping right into a disaster area without context. A small Northeastern city lies in ruins, people are trapped under rubble or wandering around wounded or lost, and you don’t know if you’re witnessing the aftermath of a natural disaster, war, a terrorist attack or something else; as a result, when a Meyerist arrives and starts helping, you may feel relief and gratitude, which of course is exactly what somebody like Cal would want you to feel in that situation.
The overall effect is an unmoored feeling. You’re cut off from common sense, as dramatic TV typically defines it. This, too, seems Meyeristic, if that is a word, and I believe it is, brothers and sisters, in my heart, for this is the one true series, the savior of TV drama, the …
Agh! Sorry about that! The show almost had me! The Path is that assured.
But should it be? Hulu is releasing the first two episodes right away and doling out the next ten on a weekly basis, which feels like a vote of confidence. I’m not convinced it’s the right course, though; created by Jessica Goldberg, a former writer on Friday Night Lights, and executive produced by Lights’ Jason Katims, it’s a compelling but slow and dire series that falls into that mid-range of long-form TV drama, where you’re interested enough to keep watching till the season is through, but not so riveted that you don’t periodically wonder if the storytellers actually needed this many episodes to tell this particular story, and if the acting and filmmaking, however excellent, is enough of a lure to justify lingering on subplots or scenes (as, say, Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete does, slowing down drama to the point where you feel like you’re watching a bare-bones stage play). The Path is by no means alone in the zone of good-enoughness. I’ve leveled similar complaints at the likes of Netflix’s House of Cards and Bloodline, as well as many network series, including ABC’s excellent American Crime and its not-so-excellent Revenge (which doled out revenge on layaway).
If you space the episodes out, you’re more likely to nitpick the choices; I suspect that if you mainlined the whole thing over a weekend it would feel much more kinetic and you might not second guess very much, mainly because the cast is so strong.
Paul’s performance is not very different from what he gave us on Breaking Bad, but I can’t imagine too many people will complain about that; like Tom Cruise or James Stewart, there are certain roles he’s guaranteed to nail, and the morally compromised and emotionally damaged everyman is clearly one of them. As the family’s moral anchor, Monaghan has a dicier part — at times it’s perilously close to Skyler White, though the ideological fervor is closer to that of Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, another show that puts universally recognizable relationships in a new context and gives you just enough parallels between an alien lifestyle and one that you know to make you reluctant to pass quick judgment on the characters’ beliefs. Dancy gets to showboat, doling out fervent speeches, heart-to-heart talks with sinister agendas, and in one scene, a beatdown. The supporting cast is a mix of lesser known character actors and names, including Minka Kelly, Ali Ahn, Kathleen Turner, and Peter Friedman. These names have been selected by wise men and women. We, too, will climb the ladder and find the light — all right, I’d better end this before I give in and convert.