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TV Shows Are Finally Ready to Have a Serious Talk About Religion

Rape, murder, incest, violent crime, drug peddling, human trafficking — the stuff of television drama is much more about vice than about virtue and its expression as religious faith.

But two new series are tackling head-on the subject that has long been considered taboo for TV. Hulu’s “The Path” revolves around practitioners of the fictitious new age-y Meyerist Movement. OWN’s “Greenleaf” bores deep into the dark side of the family behind a prosperous Christian mega church in Tennessee. Both series use the motivating power of faith as plot engines for characters spread across the spectrum of belief, from the blindly devoted to the deeply skeptical.

The construct of “The Path” allows for intriguing depictions of why people believe what they believe. Over the course of 10 episodes, the show peels back the tenets of Meyerism — touchy-feely on the surface but highly dogmatic behind closed doors — in a way that will make viewers think about Judeo-Christian conventions.

It would be easy at first blush to dismiss the Meyerists as weirdo cultists, but “Path” creator/exec producer Jessica Goldberg and her team, which includes exec producer Jason Katims, excel in grounding the characters as three-dimensional people with complicated (and relatable) family dynamics. Her task is aided by a stellar cast led by Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy and Michelle Monaghan.

“Path” invokes a few cardinal sins to heighten the drama — a murder, a criminal investigation, unbridled ambition. But the most compelling moments are found in the literal tug of war that erupts between true-believer Sarah (Monaghan) and her husband, Eddie (Paul), as he grapples with gnawing doubts about the movement.

“Religion is generally avoided on TV because of the potential to offend the faithful or turn off viewers who aren’t in the same flock. But in the peak-TV era, there’s room for such shows.”
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In “Greenleaf,” which premieres June 21, the central character is a wandering daughter, Grace, who returns home after years of estrangement from her family, led by her charismatic pastor father, and the church. What she intends as a quick visit to attend a funeral winds up rekindling her affection for both institutions, even as she quickly confronts their shortcomings. The series is created and exec produced by Craig Wright, who was a minister before shifting to writing plays and TV.

Detailed attention to religion is generally avoided in TV because of the potential to offend the faithful or turn off viewers who aren’t in the same flock. But in the peak-TV era, there’s room for shows that tread this ground.

For Goldberg, the central spark for “Path” was the simple question “can you live in a faith you don’t believe in?” — which she explores in the context of Sarah and Eddie’s marital struggle.

The process of creating the Meyerist belief system was illuminating. The “Path” writing staff created a literal bible for the movement to ensure consistency in the storytelling.

“As writers, to understand what makes people believe is so intriguing, especially at a time when extreme examples of faith are so present in our society,” Goldberg says. “Instead of just saying, ‘Those people are crazy,’ I think it’s worth trying to understand what those beliefs are and where they come from.”

Goldberg, who previously worked with Katims on NBC’s “Parenthood,” says her search for answers to such questions stems from her own yearning.

“My own intellectual agnosticism is lonely sometimes. When someone invites me to a Passover seder, I’m thrilled for the chance to be in a community and for the sense of something bigger.”

Goldberg grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., in a family that had Jewish roots but was mostly non-practicing. The “environment of seekers” she experienced in upstate New York in the 1970s and ’80s left her with plenty of questions and inspiration. She credits the “goldmine of beautiful actors” who joined her for “The Path” with breathing life into some heady material.

“All of the actors embraced that gray area of understanding what it means to believe what-
ever you believe. We didn’t want to talk down to it or be judgmental,” Goldberg says. “They embraced the truth of it.”

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