As longtime showrunner of Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims was responsible not only for one of the great family TV dramas of all time, but one of the most fundamentally spiritual. Church only occasionally became a major plot point (usually when Smash was around), but the characters' religion was presented upfront as a core part of who they were and what they cared about. On other shows like Parenthood and the short-lived Relativity, Katims and his writers have done a great job illustrating what happens when the lives of the devout get tangled up with non-believers, or with people who belong to another religion altogether.
So when you put Katims on a show where religion – specifically, a religious cult – is the chief subject, and give him a cast with Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy at the center, you should have something pretty special, right?
Unfortunately, The Path – created by Parenthood writer Jessica Goldberg and produced by Katims, its first episode debuts on Hulu tomorrow – doesn't inspire nearly the fervor I'd hoped for, given the intersection of talent and subject matter. It's a dry, claustrophobic show, with not enough of a narrative hook to pull the viewer through hour after hour of it. (Hulu made all 10 hours of the first season available to critics; I tapped out after the first five, not hating it, but also having little enthusiasm to keep going.)
The show's fictional cult is called Meyerism, founded by disillusioned veteran Steven Meyer, who claims to have had a vision of the afterlife, the future, and the true path forward, while climbing a ladder that his followers found too hot to touch. Meyer lives in Peru, and is rarely glimpsed, while the show focuses on a Meyerist compound in upstate New York, run by the charismatic but reckless Cal (Dancy), and where Eddie and Sarah Lane (Paul and Monaghan) live with their kids and her entire family, including parents who were among Meyer's initial hippie acolytes. Sarah was born into this and knows no other way, which makes her completely at ease, to the point of smugness, with all the jargon and rituals and gadgets associated with the group. Eddie came to it after a troubled childhood, but has been inside long enough that Cal often uses him to address new recruits.
It's here where the show very badly needs a point of entry character – or, at least, to better use the one it has. In the opening scene, we see a group of Meyerists swoop down on the site of a nearby disaster, shuttling the survivors back to their compound for medical care and some light indoctrination. One of those survivors is Mary (Emma Greenwell), but the show is mainly interested in her as a possible temptation for Cal, rather than a character in her own right or a means by which the audience might better understand how Meyerism works and why its members are so rabid in their devotion to it.
For the most part, TV drama has moved past the need for a newbie character (say, Carter on ER, or Charlie on West Wing) through which the audience can learn about the show's world. Viewers are used to being thrown into the narrative deep end and figuring out how to swim on their own. The Path doesn't necessarily need Mary's help to explain the mechanics of Meyerism, since so many of them are just slightly tweaked and renamed bits of Scientology. (To avoid a libel suit, the show establishes that Scientology exists in its world, and that the Meyerists are still a relatively obscure group.) But it's very much in need of her to capture the emotional pull of the thing, since all the other characters are in so deep that their faith in the cult's tenets are just assumed. Though Eddie has begun to question some of what he's been taught, there's an awful lot of jargon – “If we send her off without unburdening, that could impede your clarity” – and Meyerism as unexamined fact of life in the early episodes.
In that way, it's a bit reminiscent of HBO's polygamy drama Big Love, which was imperfect in many ways, but at least had a sense of humor about itself that compensated for the complete lack of an outsider's perspective. The Path is completely serious and sterile.
The three leads are very good, though. Aaron Paul gets to cry early and often (before their careers are through, he and Claire Danes need to co-star in something so we can establish once and for all who is television's premiere conveyer of fake tears). Monaghan commits fully to Sarah's commitment. Dancy brings more than a bit of Hannibal madness to Cal, who is simultaneously the show's villain – cynically exploiting the tenets of Meyerism, and the physical absence of Meyer himself, to expand his power base – and a very troubled and lonely individual. And every now and then, Rockmond Dunbar brings a bit of sensibility to the whole endeavor as an FBI agent investigating whether the Meyerists are up to anything criminal.
But despite those performances, or the occasionally interesting visual flourish – in the second episode, Eddie is locked up for 14 days to atone for a sin, and it's presented as one long Möbius strip where we see Eddie on all the days at the same time – the The Path drags much too much of the time. Watching it can often feel like being trapped on the compound with these people, which may well be the point Goldberg and Katims are trying to make, but which makes it difficult to sit through, even if you watch it the way Hulu has scheduled it (and all its other original series), one episode a week.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com