Hugh Dancy and Aaron Paul know a thing or two about acting in intense dramas loaded with moral and psychological complexity. Though “Hannibal” was rooted in horror, and “Breaking Bad” was more of an antihero thriller, Dancy and Paul each showed great facility at playing well-intentioned characters inextricably connected to men riddled with dark and self-serving impulses. Thus it’s exciting at first to watch these actors circle each other in a new Hulu drama that has Dancy playing the troubled leader of a cult and Paul as a prominent member of the group who begins to have serious doubts. Unfortunately, “The Path” ends up being so diffident and tentative that it’s hard to recommend that potential viewers take a leap of faith.
Though the mistrust between Cal (Dancy) and Eddie (Paul) forms the core of the story, other central elements of “The Path” revolve around a third character, Michelle Monaghan’s Sarah, who is married to Eddie. Sarah is often written so blandly and predictably that she fades in comparison to Eddie and Cal; that said, only the charisma and crackling empathy of Paul and Dancy lift Eddie and Paul above the generally hollow characterizations that litter this ambitious but ultimately frustrating drama.
One character in particular symbolizes the problems of the 10-episode series, which debuts with two episodes March 30 and releases one per week thereafter. Emma Greenwell plays Mary, a new recruit who ideally should be the audience’s entry point into the Meyerist Movement, which grew out of a series of books written by a doctor-turned-’60s dropout. Perhaps it’s meant to be pathetic and moving that Mary is almost entirely defined by the men who sexually exploit her for their own purposes — first by her cartoonishly awful father, then by Cal, who is more controlled but no less prone to using those weaker than him.
The trouble is, the show doesn’t do much better by Mary than the powerful men in her life. There’s little to her beyond her wide eyes, her credulousness and various scenes of sexual exploitation and conquest.
It’s a shame a show about spirituality rings so hollow, given that the issues at play in the drama are potentially fascinating. Many people in these difficult times feel confused, pessimistic and lost, hence the appeal of a group that teaches new recruits that by ascending a “ladder” of spiritual steps, it’s possible to both gain mastery of one’s emotions and help build a better world. If true believers stick to ascending the rungs of the ladder and steer clear of outsiders and their corruptions, Meyerist teachings hold out the promise of “the garden,” which awaits the community of the faithful.
What is “the garden”? What exactly do people gain and give up as they ascend the ladder? Why is this particular group devoted to the idea of family unity at all costs? It’s not difficult to figure out why marijuana is a part of the movement, but knottier and potentially more interesting questions remain mostly unanswered or only vaguely sketched out.
Hallucinogens play a role in the movement, as do vegetarianism and a devotion to green juices; “the dark” and “the light” are often mentioned; the group’s woodsy upstate New York compound has an ecological focus; a yoga technique practiced by various couples veers toward the tantric, and “IS” (“ignorant systematics,” i.e., non-believers) and “unburdening” come up a lot. In the end, this patchouli-scented potpourri of New Age ideas and tendencies adds up to … nothing much.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the religion of “The Path” comes off like a bootleg blend of Scientology and half a dozen granola-intensive belief systems. In these litigious times, one comes to the drama more or less expecting that kind of lawyer-approved approximation.
But the lack of imagination goes deeper; it affects the show’s core thematic underpinnings, and the absence of a clear focus ends up squandering the efforts of the more skilled members of the cast. Unlike “The Leftovers,” a drama concerned with many similar ideas, “The Path” doesn’t use faith and disillusionment to spur the development of believably complex characters, nor does it create the kind of intense atmosphere or propulsive storytelling that would mask its dearth of coherent ideas. The loss of a belief system, which is what Eddie faces, should be shattering, but the Meyerist movement seems so wispy and derivative that it’s hard to care much about his slow-burning crisis of faith.
The theme that tenuously floats through “The Path” is that people of faith — and even those with the tenacity of true believers or the charismatic will of prophets — are flawed and often make mistakes. Tied to highly specific and resonant moral and emotional journeys, or linked to a story teeming with aesthetic or atmospheric profundity, that realization might be enough to fuel a television drama, but as depicted here, the lesson just seems trite.
“The Path” attempts to amp up its dramatic potential with a subplot involving an FBI agent (Rockmond Dunbar) who investigates the darker side of the group (it comes as no surprise that the chatter about “unburdening” and psychological blockages masks far more troubling issues of mind control and even kidnapping). But as is too often the case, the law enforcement element of the story takes a long time to go anywhere, and like the rest of the actors, Dunbar often has too little to work with. There are few things more powerful than the sight of Paul trying to hold back tears, and Dancy plays the role of a guru who fears he’s a con man with admirable energy and discipline, but these actors often have to try too hard to add dramatic heft to their scenes. It doesn’t help that some of the supporting actors don’t give their characters believable interior lives, or simply fail make much of an impression.
Given that deep spirituality is often about questioning reality and sometimes involves mystical mental states, it would be unfair to expect “The Path” to provide a pat series of answers. But a set of rigorously examined and deeply felt questions might have been enough to give this rambling story the spark that it needs. As it is, the drama’s overly deliberate pace and under-cooked character dynamics may cause some to lose faith before the season finale arrives.