Here’s one way to stay engaged during the sedately paced cult-escape drama The Path: Count all the similarities between Meyerism, the restrictive religion at the show’s center, and Scientology. Though creator Jessica Goldberg dismisses comparisons between her fictional faith and L. Ron Hubbard’s movement, the Hulu series, which debuts March 30, does little to disguise its influences. Scientology’s E-meters and audits are refashioned into “em-machines” and “unburdens,” Hubbard’s Bridge modified slightly into Meyer’s “Ladder,” and nonbelievers amended from S.P.’s (suppressive persons) to “I.S.’s” (ignorant systemites). Most relevantly to The Path’s characters, Meyerism defectors (like those of many other cults) are cut off from their families, who are then encouraged to believe that the separation of, say, parents from their children contributes to “the greater good.”
That’s the dilemma that drives the somber first season, which finds young father Eddie (Aaron Paul, returning to TV for the first time since Breaking Bad) in a crisis of faith and family. His wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), suspects he had an affair during his recent ayahuasca-based retreat in Peru, but as the pokily atmospheric pilot gradually reveals, Eddie’s transgression is far worse: He doesn’t believe in the Light anymore. Since Sarah’s ride-or-die attitude pertains only to her creed, the fork in Eddie’s road seems clear: stay with his family and live a lie, or pursue his truth and never see his wife or two children again.
Even in that less-than-gripping first hour, Eddie and Sarah’s story line is the least engrossing, in large part because the talented Paul and Monaghan are asked to play circumstances, not characters. Over the 10-episode arc, their mutual attraction never feels quite real, despite numerous sex scenes between the married couple. (Fans of gratuitously revealed breasts: Hulu’s got you covered.) Eddie’s proclamations of love for his aloof wife ring especially hollow when Sarah’s revealed to be the type of haughty believer always boasting about the superior compassion of her faith yet never deigning to show any of it. “I’m not very religious,” says a recently evicted widow, fearful that the cultists temporarily housing her and her children will attempt to recruit them in their vulnerable state. “That’s why you’re alone,” scolds Sarah with more than a hint of sharpness. (The show’s other female characters don’t fare better, and neither do most of the characters of color.)
Crunchier than Scientology, Meyerism most resembles Hubbard’s movement three decades ago — before the worldwide profile and celebrity endorsements, and just when the death of its reclusive founder threatened the future of the faith. Enter Cal (Hugh Dancy), a charismatic megalomaniac with anger and alcohol issues in charge of the upstate New York “campus” where the show is mostly set. Toggling publicly between everyman and demigod, he spends his time alone listening to self-help advice to better manage others and avoids eating in group settings in order to seem not quite human. (Cal and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler character should trade notes.)
The two-faced cult leader with sexual hang-ups and little tolerance for disloyalty is a familiar figure, but Dancy makes Cal compelling all the same, his eyes as stony as his self-discipline is slushy. Single and seemingly happy about it, his flirtations with the married Sarah and new follower Mary (Emma Greenwell), an abuse victim and recovering junkie, are nowhere near as interesting as Kathleen Turner’s guest appearance as the cult leader’s estranged mother in the third episode, when she tells her son, “I have no idea how you trick people into joining you.” But it’s actually quite easy to see how: Cal is willing to do more -- much, much more -- than his fellow believers to secure the future of Meyerism, with him at its helm.
Produced by Parenthood and Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims, The Path is strongest in its depictions of intergenerational struggles. Eddie unexpectedly discovers an echo of his doubt in his 15-year-old son, Hawk (Kyle Allen), who becomes enamored with a girl outside the Meyerist community, against his religion’s proscriptions. Paternal helplessness bonds Eddie with FBI agent Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar), the father of an ailing infant who finds unexpected comfort in the cult he’s investigating. The prospect of loss also helps Eddie find Alison (Sarah Jones), an apostate eager to help others defect after Meyerist higher-ups had her husband killed for planning to leave the group.
That’s more than enough tension and plot for a season, especially with Goldberg’s ambitious themes in the mix: religion’s ability (or even desire) to split and segregate, the arrogance of a self-appointed spiritual elite, the challenge of maintaining a faith after its founder’s demise, the pain of losing one’s religious identity, the difficulty of leaving cults and other closed communities, and the question of how many good works a new sect has to perform to make up for its predatory or exploitative practices. The Path begins with a group of cheerful, well-trained corps of Meyerists helping hurricane victims in another nod to Scientology. Sure, their aim is to convert, but isn’t morally sticky help preferable to victims receiving no help at all?
There’s no easy answer in The Path, which does pick up in the latter half of the season, as Cal claws his way toward power and Sarah inevitably learns the secrets both her husband and her leader have been keeping from her. The finale is an excellent setup for next season, but Goldberg takes it for granted that we’ll stick around with the Meyerites, no matter how many scenes are devoted solely to staring and glowering. When an accidental murder takes place late in the season, it’s a relief. Though shrouded by the darkness of self-delusion, The Path could do with a few more bumps in the road.