Hulu may see this as 'The Path' to a cult following. And Emmy nods

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Hulu is getting serious about being a platform for original programming and this year's Emmy race. Which are pretty much the same thing.

The streaming service previously known for bringing the poignant and hilarious "Moon Boy" to the States and saving "The Mindy Project" from extinction is now throwing down "The Path," a drama so obviously tailored for awards season that it opens with a vista of apocalypse and stars a trinity of trophy bait: Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy.

All of whom are terrific, by the way, even when they appear to be working against their material, which swings from hubris to self-doubt as often as any of its characters, beginning with that opening scene.

Though full of Mad Max-like images of burning cars, crushed buildings and a waifish survivor in short-shorts, it's a cheat. A trailer park in New Hampshire has been hit by a tornado, and while tornadoes remain rare in New England, it's not the end of the world.

Instead, it's chance for creator Jessica Goldberg to introduce the two faces of her fictional religious group, the Meyerists. Members of which arrive en masse, offering aid to the devastated survivors and then spiriting everyone, including the waif (who is named Mary and played by Emma Greenwall), away in white panel vans.

It's all Very Symbolic and Full of Foreshadowing, making it clear that "The Path" wants to be an important show but also a different kind of show, one that examines the nature of, and need for, faith and community by presenting them in the extreme but still familiar trappings of a vaguely hippie cult.

Within the communal agrarian setting, there are, however, more nods to Scientology than the Hog Farm, including a conscience-cleansing ritual called "unburdening," a hierarchy of spiritual achievement and a birthing ritual. But to her credit Goldberg has made the Meyerists a diverse group of "regular" people, none of whom is making millions in the film industry.

And most appear quite sincere in their admiration for their absent but still living guru, former Army psychiatrist Stephen Meyer, and his creation: a spiritual ladder upon which one can climb to the peaceful garden of the afterlife.

Introduced as they say their own version of grace in their picturesque upstate New York farmhouse, Sarah (Monaghan) and Eddie (Paul) are among those decent disciples, though Sarah leans toward burning devotion while Eddie secretly shivers in the chilly shadow of doubt.

There is a snake in that garden, of course (literally and almost immediately). It will surprise no one to learn that charming Cal (Dancy), the sect's temporary leader (and, of course, Sarah's former beau), is propelled by something darker than the desire to be of service.

Because even with Monaghan providing as fresh a spiritual fulcrum as we've seen on any screen in a while, Goldberg can't quite bring herself to break away from television's version of the Path, in this case the well-traveled track of Prestige Drama.

Ever since AMC entered the original programming business with the double punch of Emmy magnets "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," new or renovated television platforms have followed a similar pattern: Get those Emmy nominations, and the viewers will come.

And despite all the narrative shifts of the past few years, the best way to get an Emmy nomination in the drama category is still by telling a tale of broken men and the damage they do, whether the milieu is organized crime or organized religion.

Star power doesn't hurt either, and it's difficult to imagine two actors better suited to this kind of sadomasochistic circling — Dancy just completed the cannibalistic ballet of "Hannibal," and Paul helped launch the television revolution with "Breaking Bad's" sniveling yet eventually triumphant junkie Jesse.

Monaghan, having managed to shine even through the swirling testosterone fog of "True Detective," knows how to do a lot with a little; her Sarah, who teeters but never quite succumbs to zealotry, is the North Star of "The Path."

Still, it's the growing tension between Eddie, with his insecure decency and possibly actual mysticism, and the charm-boy con of Cal, that drives the show.

Which works well enough — no doubt there will be Emmy nods — but it misses the even more golden opportunity to tell a story of faith and doubt, of the dangers posed by both compromise and rigidity, while examining the underpinnings of marriage and family.

In other words, Sarah and Eddie are a lot more interesting than Cal, whose only redeeming quality appears to be that his mother is played (briefly but wonderfully) by Kathleen Turner.

Like WGN's "Outsiders" (which it greatly resembles, down to the comatose leader and scheming wannabe replacement), "The Path" is at its best when it uses its micro-society — complete with outlier laws, traditions and means of worship — to examine the dimensions of the larger issues.

The nature of the courtship rituals, division of labor, currency and Supreme Being may differ from one group to another, but the essential fact of them, and the effect they have on human behavior, remain eerily universal. Power corrupts, separatism suffocates and the institution should serve the needs of the individual, not the other way around.

But this series is part of an industry with rituals of its own. As with "Outsiders," the Meyerists have a troublesome relationship with the outside world that leads to many subplots, including star-crossed lovers, the threat of banishment and the inevitable intrusion of the FBI. Oh, and there's a murder mystery as well.

It's a lot, enough to keep "The Path" jumping along with plot developments and metaphorical twists. None of which is as interesting as watching the various characters, main and otherwise, grapple with the benefits and requirements of faith.

Few of us will face banishment or tangle with the FBI, but most of us have a few questions about the universe and our chosen path through it.

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'The Path'

Where: Hulu

When: anytime, starting Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for sex and violence)

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