“The Path” has many things working in its favor, not least of all the way it takes a leap into big questions of faith. Characters in “The Path” struggle with their commitment to a New York State-based sect called Meyerism, which, like many organized spiritual ventures, asks for absolute fidelity. These people — in particular Aaron Paul’s Eddie — want to believe, but their pledge is challenged by the dazzling anarchy and freedoms of modern life, and by questions of Meyerist protocol. They’re like the Mormon family at the center of “Big Love,” living inside a fragile, transparent bubble in a spiky world.
The timing of Hulu’s 10-episode streaming drama series, which premieres with two episodes on Wednesday, is rich, as faith takes on new dimensions in the 21st century. On the one hand, Pope Francis is slowly and carefully trying to update and refresh some Catholic strictures and interpretations. On the other hand, ISIS is demanding blind faith in the name — but not the spirit — of Islam. What it means to sign up for a belief system right now is in global flux, becoming more livable for some, and more of a death wish for others. “The Path,” which was created by playwright Jessica Goldberg and executive produced by Jason Katims of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” uses the 6,000-member Meyerism as a microcosm of these issues. Is questioning your faith a sign of weakness, or strength?
The show also benefits from interesting performances. As Eddie, Paul proves he can play a character who’s more intelligent and responsible than his indelible Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad.” Eddie is the everyman of the story, a guy who falls into Meyerism and winds up married to the daughter of the founding members, Michelle Monaghan’s Sarah. A loving husband and father of two, he lives happily by the main Meyerist tenets, honesty and family. But on a drug trip at a Meyerist retreat in Peru, which Meyerists take to help climb the rungs of their religious ladder, he sees something that sets his faith teetering. He also hears a story about a member — no spoilers here — that sets him on edge. He returns home stricken with profound secret doubts.
He tries to keep his questioning from Sarah, who goes strictly by the book, and from Hugh Dancy’s Cal, a high-level believer who has his eye on becoming the next leader of Meyerism. But they can see Eddie has changed, which alters the delicate balance in their longstanding love triangle. Long ago, Sarah chose the rough-hewn Eddie over the more ambitious Cal, but the three-way energy continues to play out among them. Monaghan is just right as Sarah, who is a hands-on believer but also an entitled member of Meyerist royalty who gets special treatment. She’s impassioned, intuitive, empowered, and yet a little unseeing. As Cal, Dancy is a strong blend of charm and creepiness; you can understand Sarah’s attraction to him, as well as the reason she chose Eddie over him.
Another plus on “The Path”: Goldberg carefully avoids turning her show into an easy slam of cults. You don’t feel as if she’s telegraphing “Can you believe they do THIS?” She lets us make our own judgments of Meyerism, which is a blend of Scientology and 1970s New Age hippiedom built on an elaborate mythology involving “unburdening,” “light,” and a “ladder.” Meyerists do good things; in the premiere, after a tornado, they rush in to help the victims. Of course, that fast action gives them a crop of potential new members, but it also has them providing aid long before FEMA shows up. Meyerists also do bad things, and I’m not referring to their insipid worship song “Garden in the Sky.” They conduct weeks-long sessions in locked rooms to punish and reboot members, and they compete for different levels on their ladder. When Sarah and Eddie’s teenage son Hawk (Kyle Allen) begins a flirtation with an “I.S.” — an “ignorant systemite” from outside the sect — Sarah’s response is rather horrid.
Of course, I am building to a “but.” While “The Path” is engaging, and smart when it comes to portraying the strangeness of cult life, it suffers from a bad case of tonal overkill. Especially in the first hour, which begins in the middle of the tornado crisis, the show works overtime to be menacing, broody, and dramatic, with a hyper-serious tone (not unlike that of another apocalypse-tinged series, “The Leftovers”) that can be off-putting. Even the actors are sometimes pushed to over-express, to be almost operatic when a less-heightened approach would be more effectively haunting. As the story develops across the first five episodes, the strain eases but never quite disappears. Goldberg and Katims should realize that their actors and their scripts — including subplots about an FBI investigation and an abused new cult member — are good enough. They don’t need to be charged up with gobs of doom and gloom in order to hold our attention.
Starring: Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Friedman, Kyle Allen
On Hulu, streaming Wednesday