Written by Matt Taylor
With The Path, Hulu has all the ingredients for a critical darling and prestigious award show hit. The series stars Aaron Paul in his first major post-Breaking Bad role, while also featuring Hugh Dancy of Hannibal fame and Michelle Monaghan of True Detective. It’s also created by acclaimed playwright Jessica Goldberg, and produced by Jason Katims, the mastermind behind Friday Night Lights and the woefully underappreciated Parenthood. But do all these ingredients make for a winning series? Well, the first episode is certainly flawed, but there is definitely a lot of interesting material here.
Clearly meant to remind viewers of cultish religions like Scientology, The Path centers on the passionate followers of a religion known as The Meyerist Movement, who believe the end times are coming and that they’ll only find salvation by dutifully following their strict rules. Aaron Paul portrays Eddie Cleary, a recovered drug addict who now lives as a father and husband to a seemingly happy family within the confines of the cult. But much of the first episode focuses on a mysterious retreat that Eddie took to Peru, and how whatever he saw while on that trip is making him doubt his own beliefs. His incredibly pious wife, Sarah (Monaghan), reaches out to their friend, and a high-ranking leader within the Movement, Cal (Dancy), to help Eddie. What follows is a mysterious, twisty and thought provoking look at modern religious movements that certainly calls to mind Scientology, but could really be applied to any major religious branch.
The real incentive to tune in to The Path is the cast and, unsurprisingly, the performances are uniformly solid. While we’ve already seen Paul play a tortured-but-likable character, he really does excel in the role, and should make for a captivating protagonist. It’s also nice to see Monaghan being given better material than she had on True Detective, where she was relegated to playing the supportive-but-careworn wife archetype that proved to be that miniseries’ main weak point. But this is primarily Dancy’s show, and he is absolutely eerie as the series’ main antagonist. As would be expected of a religious leader, there is a certain charismatic quality to his performance, and he’s given the chance to show a lot more emotion than he did on Hannibal. But there is also a creepy undercurrent to his performance: you can always see some dark thoughts forming in his head. Another actor worth pointing out is Emma Greenwell, who plays a new member of The Movement who previously worked as a child prostitute. While she doesn’t have much to do in the pilot, Greenwell certainly leaves an impression with some very strong sequences, and her budding relationship with Cal is the highpoint of the episode.
Unfortunately, The Path seems desperate to cash-in on some of TV’s biggest trends, none of which it can pull off well. The show is oppressively dark, much like True Detective, but lacks any sense of realism as a result. Why would anyone be drawn to this cult in the first place when it’s so creepy and clearly up to no good? While there are thought provoking ideas being explored in the script, the tone downplays them and makes certain scenes come off as ridiculous. The show also needlessly employs a time-jump storytelling technique, a la How to Get Away with Murder, which just makes the storyline needlessly complicated. When the first episode’s twists are revealed, the nonlinear progression of the story fails to add any punch to the delivery. It would have been just as strong, if not stronger, had it been told in an ordinary fashion.
One thing that did work about the pilot, however, is the realistic family dynamic shared amongst the characters. Much like Katims’ previous series, the relationship between Eddie, Sarah and their children feels realistic, and already carries some emotional weight to it. Likewise, certain plotlines teased throughout the hour, such as a burgeoning romance between Eddie’s son and his (non-religious) classmate seems just as exciting as the more dramatic subplots. And, it is worth noting that the episode ends with a jarring, but captivating cliffhanger that certainly made me want to start the second episode right away. There’s definitely room for improvement, but there is also a lot to draw you in.
While The Path has a long way to go before it can be considered one of TV’s most watch dramas, it marks an admirable attempt by Hulu to become a relevant content provider in the ever-growing marketplace. With complex themes and a strong cast, The Path has some serious potential. Let’s hope it avoids common TV tropes and finds its unique voice soon.
Overall rating: 7 out of 10