The Path, Hulu's latest attempt to compete with Netflix and Amazon in the streaming wars, is slooooooooooooow going. If this review accurately encompassed how slow it can feel, it would just be o's.
The series was created by Jessica Goldberg, a playwright who's used to creating stories in a medium where long scenes are standard and it's common to spend lots of time teasing out character motivations, in contrast to the relatively quick pace of TV.
It also hails from executive producer Jason Katims, whose credits include Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, neither of which was known for breakneck storytelling or big plot twists. Katims loves intimacy — scenes where two people sit alone in a room and have a deeply emotional talk. And while that can make for beautiful TV, it rarely makes for exciting TV.
The Path combines Katims and Goldberg's talents and experience with a story about a suffocating religious movement that seems heavily based on Scientology, at least at first blush (although the more you watch, the more you'll realize it cherry-picks ideas from lots of religions). This setup, as executed by the two folks bringing it to the screen, at times yields some seriously claustrophobic TV.
But while I can't exactly recommend The Path — again, it's super slow — those who can get on its wavelength will find that its hypnotic vibe is just what they're looking for.
The Path uses slowness to lull you into complacency
The central problem with any show about a religious movement (or, let's be honest, a cult) is the fact that it's difficult to get viewers to believe in something that may be violently opposed to their own belief systems. And to be sure, The Path struggles with this, particularly throughout the first half of its first season.
Meyerism — also known as the Meyerist Movement — is based around the idea of a metaphorical ladder that one can climb to attain personal fulfillment. The metaphorical ladder will then lead to a literal ladder in the sky, which in turn leads to a kind of heaven/nirvana hybrid. On its face, Meyerism sounds ridiculous, an attempt to blend some of the rigor of old-school religion with the notions behind self-help systems.
What's more, The Path almost immediately has one of its protagonists, Eddie (played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), begin to doubt that Meyerism has anything to it beyond fancy stories, which can undermine the show's attempts to convince viewers to invest in a completely fictional religion.
Even if you believe that all of our actual religions are based on nonsense, it's easy to observe the centuries' or even millennia's worth of influence they've had on human events. Meyerism doesn't have that built-in advantage, and that can make its teachings seem completely bizarre.
Compounding Meyerism's relative newness is the way Goldberg sets many of The Path's scenes at lengthy religious ceremonies, which crawl along, not really advancing the story or anything like that. You either surrender to live among the Meyerists — while simultaneously doubting every single thing they say — or you don't.
But the deeper you get into The Path's first season, the more Goldberg reveals how cannily she has constructed this particular puzzle. Every episode reveals new facets of the Meyerists' belief system, including some that can seem fairly interesting to even the nonbelievers watching the show, like a lengthy hike undertaken to let go of emotional burdens. The longer you watch, the more you'll find yourself intrigued by what's really going on beneath Meyerism's loopy facade.
And this is where the fact that Jason Katims produced this show begins to make sense, because The Path is ultimately a show about family.
The Path understands that all religions are webs of relationships
Emotionally, The Path seems most likely to resonate with viewers who used to belong to strong religious traditions, then fell away from them. The series is full of people who have turned away from Meyerism — or are in the process of turning — and find their lives overcome with the emotional detritus from that decision.
Like most cults, Meyerism forces its practitioners to cut off all contact with family members who are not part of the group. Thus, when members leave, they're cast adrift in a world without a support system. Now, that's a rather extreme version of being a former believer who feels disconnected from whatever they once had faith in, but The Path finds little links here and there to, say, all of the lapsed Catholics in our midst.
It's The Path's family drama that's expected to carry the show past all of the challenges it faces in convincing audiences to buy into its strange worldview. Eddie is married to a woman named Sarah (Michelle Monaghan, recently of True Detective), and they have two kids (one of whom is named, amusingly, Hawk). Sarah's had a lifelong flirtation with a Meyerist leader named Cal (Hannibal's Hugh Dancy), who is jockeying to earn a promotion as the Meyerism leadership structure undergoes some restructuring.
So, yes, The Path is a story about a love triangle. But by grounding that love triangle in a question of whether family or faith is ultimately more important, it doesn't feel like the show is trying to force anything. Cal isn't a believable match for Sarah so much as he's a representation of what she believes in. Similarly, Eddie isn't continuing to go through the motions of Meyerism just to do so; he doesn't want to lose his family. It's similar to how Big Love, the best show in TV history when it comes to matters of religion, handled these questions.
And there's more going on here than meets the eye. I don't want to spoil anything, but those who make it through the bumpy, lumpy first half of the season will be rewarded by a back half that has a lot more to unpack. (I will discuss The Path's plot more in depth once the entire season is over; as usual, Hulu is dropping one episode per week, with two available the first week, rather than following Netflix and Amazon's model of releasing all 10 at once.)
But even the show's weaker early episodes are well-constructed, each of them a discrete unit unto itself rather than simply another "chapter" in a longer tale. That's to say nothing of its visual template, which blends the usual intimacy (all close-ups and soft indie rock) of a Katims production with some of the head-tripping imagery of Twin Peaks or Lost.
It's a wild, weird blend of influences, and not all of it works. The Path is not a great TV show — not yet — but it's great-adjacent. And for a very particular set of viewers, it's going to be the thing they've been seeking for a very long time.
New episodes of The Path release every Wednesday on Hulu through May 25.