Before we talk about Hulu and The Path, let’s talk a little bit about Netflix, for comparison. When it comes to streaming providers, Netflix has cruised to the top of the heap with the right mix of acquired series and high-profile original content. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have competed for Emmys, while its Marvel collaboration series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones should. Though not every original content experiment has maintained that quality, it still has created a large gulf in popularity between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.
Hulu in particular has struggled to find its place, thanks both to its inclusion of irritating commercial breaks even for paid subscribes (though they now have a commercial-free tier) and its haphazard approach to original content. Though many of its acquired series, its Criterion collection, and its ability to show recent broadcast and cable episodes have made it valuable to certain audiences, it hasn’t yet been recognized as providing its own great TV.
That started to change with the advent of its J.J. Abrams-produced Steven King miniseries 11.22.63, and now, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path feels like it’s helping Hulu brand itself as a place to find uniquely bingeable dramas, ones in particular that rely heavily on visual style, character development, and exceptional performances. It’s not exactly time to say “watch out Netflix!” but for the Hulu faithful (and discerning viewers), it’s definitely good news.
The Path, at first, may not quite seem like it’s living up to that billing, though, as it has a rough first episode that awkwardly lays out its setting and central premise. But the essentials are this: the series (which will run for an initial 10 episodes) focuses on a cult (they prefer to call themselves a “movement”) that started out decades ago as something of a hippie commune. That’s starting to change. The movement itself is based on something called Meyerism, named after their first leader, who has had the tenants of their beliefs (called “the ladder”) revealed to him, and to him alone. Now, as he finishes up writing the teachings of the final rungs of the ladder, he has been sequestered away in Peru, one of the movement’s outposts. In his place at the compound in upstate New York is his heir apparent, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) who is pivoting the movement to follow his own teachings in a way that seems to be increasingly dark and violent.
Those changes are seen both through Cal’s own journey, which is compromised by his pride and personal demons, as well as by one of the movement’s most entrenched families, the Clearys. Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) was born into the movement and is one of its staunchest advocates, especially when it comes to promoting peace and well-being to its members, and to the wider world. Her husband, Eddie (Aaron Paul) came to it later, but is now having doubts. His flirtation with an idea about finding the true away from the movement leads him to a denier named Alison (Sarah Jones) who believes Meyerists killed her husband. When Sarah confronts Eddie over his whereabouts, he realizes it is easier (and yet still extraordinarily difficult) to make up having an affair rather than betray his doubts.
But there are a myriad of other stories that weave in and out of this central conflict, including the truth about the movement’s leader, the intentions of an FBI agent (Rockmond Dunbar) who is investigating Meyerism but getting pulled into it at the same time, the outsider girlfriend (Amy Forsyth) of Sarah and Eddie’s son (Kyle Allen) who the family fears is corrupting him, as well as the history Sarah and Cal share that only fuels Eddie’s paranoia.
More than anything, The Path is reminiscent of the long-departed HBO series Big Love, which (before it devolved into a plot-point-based mess of convoluted storytelling) was a fantastically considered family drama. Like Big Love, The Path explores faith in ways that feel both strange and familiar. Meyerism clearly borrows from Scientology, as well as utopian societies and sects and more, but it grounds itself in its deep consideration of its character’s feelings and motivations. It illustrates, often beautifully, the comfort and support of an extended family of like-minded people, yet balances that with the guilt, shame, and suffocating feeling of thinking differently within such a rigid context.
Despite these many positives, the series suffers from some extremely clunky plotting and dialogue in its first episode, though it starts to straighten out fairly quickly, and only improves as it goes on (especially regarding an odd subplot about a young junkie Cal both saves and uses). Visually, it has some true standout moments, including a particularly beautiful and harrowing rehab montage. But the natural, complicated, layered performances of Dancy, Paul, and Monaghan are the series’ life force, especially in the ways they use intimacy as both a balm and a weapon. Their characters seem to be, and want to appear to be, all heading in the same direction: to “the garden in the sky.” And yet, they could not truly be more disparate in their desires.
Like 11.22.63, Hulu has chosen to release its new series one episodes of the time, which again feels like a mistake. Though the idea is to keep bringing viewers back and staying engaged for longer with the site, Hulu doesn’t yet appear to have the cachet to sustain that kind of model. That means that both series might get drowned out in a landscape with so many other high-profile premieres that are more easily accessible, which would be a terrible shame — both are not only unique, but eminently binge-able. Like the adherents of Meyerism, The Path should allow viewers to get swept up in its story. And while skepticism may rule at the start, it doesn’t take long for the show to make one a believer in its own story, and in the power of its exceptional performances.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
The Path premieres on Wednesday, March 30th on Hulu.