Rarely have I wanted a show to work as much as I wanted Hulu’s The Path to work. It contains ingredients from many of my favorite series over the last few years: Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad, Michelle Monaghan from True Detective, and Hugh Dancy from Hannibal; it comes from producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and it’s meant to explore questions of faith, not unlike The Leftovers.
How could it possibly miss?
The Path doesn’t fail because it’s bad; it doesn’t work because it’s uninvolving. Jason Katims, it turns out, is not the showrunner (that title belongs to one of his Parenthood writers, Jessica Goldberg), and his warm imprimatur is missing from the series’ first two episodes. The tone, instead, can be best described as indistinct. The Path seems to believe that having a great cast and an intriguing premise saves it from unengaging characters and a lifeless storyline.
The series, which premieres its first two episodes (of eight) on Hulu today, is about a fictional cult, the Meyerist Movement, which is a vague combination of Scientology, shamanism, EST, self-help, vegetarianism, Branch Davidians and reefer madness. Hugh Dancy stars as Cal, the leader of the Meyerist Movement, which seeks to recruit vulnerable members of society (drug addicts, natural disaster refugees) and move them “up the ladder” and toward the “light.” The cult seems to be motivated by an earnest desire to help people, but Cal is clearly sketchy and ambitious, desiring to raise the profile of the cult by seeking public exposure (something its founder adamantly opposed).
Meanwhile, Aaron Paul plays Eddie, a member of the cult who — after tripping on some sort of hallucinogen — saw visions of his dead brother and arrived at an epiphany. He believes the Meyerist Movement is built on a foundation of lies, but also recognizes that most religions are. Eddie is questioning his faith, which is a sin even greater than adultery to his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), who was born into the cult and wields considerable influence. Eddie, in fact, is so concerned about his wife finding out that he has doubts that he lets her believe that he cheated on her rather than tell her the truth: That he no longer buys into the Meyerist bullsh*t.
The premise itself would have potential if it were a show about a man wrestling with his faith in a meaningful way. The Path, however, only pays lip service to that aspect of the series, choosing instead to rely mostly on the relationship drama between Eddie, his wife Sarah, and her ex-boyfriend Cal. Unfortunately, there’s not much there to explore. The characters are largely cult-member cliches and there is next-to-no chemistry between Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul, who we’re also supposed to believe is old enough to have a 16-year-old son.
Part of the problem stems from the Meyerist Movement itself. It’s vague and undefined, and we never get a particularly good sense of what it’s about other than recruiting troubled people by offering them an alternative to their miserable lives. Unlike The Leftovers, there’s no hook to grab us. There are also several expository flashbacks — many of them drug induced — that are goofy to the point of being laughable, while many of the performances are lethargically subdued. Aaron Paul mostly broods; Monaghan tsks tsks; and Hugh Dancy has none of the charisma, vitality or glamour we’d expect from a cult leader capable of recruiting a large following. Katims’ alum Minka Kelly also shows up, but so far it’s hard to figure out why.
Ultimately, The Path doesn’t work because it’s underdeveloped. It doesn’t know what to do with either the characters or the story. Worst of all, the series has no personality. It might improve over the course of eight episodes, but so far The Path has given us no reason to stick around past the first two to find out.