Some group of human beings exists— out in the wide world of Roku, smart TV, and Playstation users — who watched the entirety of Hulu original series The Path. They must have; earlier this month, the cult drama was put to a second season.
Hulu, like other streaming services, holds its viewer stats for original programming close to the belt; the internet writes about most shows on TV as if they are a great serial novel full of sub-themes to be unraveled. All of this hype obscures the clear picture: Did people care about, or like, The Path?
If you look at the critic aggregate sites, opinion was relatively, but not drastically, split. Some, in their explainer-y blaséness, indicate a possible pandering to Hulu’s PR forces, who must be wrathful as they fight to built interest for their widening menu of “risky” original programming.
Of course, critical reaction never indicates how many people watch a show. But the target audience for The Path, which falls generally into the ever-more-pervasive category of “prestige TV”, would seem to be intellectually-minded people with a penchant for binge-watching. That is, people who actually read the reviews. Join the “serious”-event-TV-watching club — HBO and FX regulars who follow up with national media outlets’ TV podcasts the following day at work — and you will constantly need more content to feed your hunger, or at least your post-work ritual.
So the reason for these types to give a shit about The Path was, in large part, because of the marquee. These were three major stars from three other recent, widely lauded, cinema-scale TV shows: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (True Detective Season 1, an important prototype for stunt all-star TV casting), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal). If you liked those shows, you were attracted to the prospect of seeing these characters back in action, and the curious idea that they would be on a Hulu show.
Then there was the elevator pitch and aura of the previews, suggesting some Frankensteins monster of Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, and Big Love. A cult with a dark underbelly, hallucinations, mysticism, the individual’s struggle to find truth in a broken world, and family drama. The Leftovers’ initial source of appeal fit the situation best: One wondered, would there be an element of magical realism, or the “unexplained”?
The show, across its 10-episode first season, proved to be a condensed, more formally conventional Leftovers in many ways: perhaps the first post-Leftovers-style show. We kept waiting for the clear revelation of some bigger secret or truth, as on the HBO show. But where The Leftovers constantly teases a glimpse of the divine, The Path simply played cat-and-mouse. It fractured the central question — what are the dark roots of the hippie-mystical Meyerist movement? — into several different, less effective plot lines.
We observed “movement” leader Cal’s (Dancy) family backstory, his thirst for power and exposure, a insatiable sex drive, his fondness for drinking, and a brutal, impulsive urge to crush anyone who opposes him. We know he is lying to his congregation, but it remains ambiguous: Was the “true leader” of the cult, Steven, able to purport any “true” knowledge to him? And what, exactly, did he say against Cal? The central truth of Meyerism is never revealed.
That’s because The Path is a television show begging for a second season; perhaps they even got ordered to series before production wrapped. The idea that we may finally learn the mystery of Steve’s role and opinion on the discombobulated goings-on next season is teased in the last shot of the finale. Does Meyer “no longer believe in the light,” as his ayahausca-slinging henchman Silas claimed he did? And so we are strung along into the year-or-so-away future.
The Paths central misstep? Its deadly-slow pace for most of the season, the man hindrance to becoming an addictive, not-very-good “serious” TV show. It only ramps up in the second half; the claim could have been made about The Leftovers early on. Yet that hasn’t stopped both shows from continuing.
As a recent Vulture feature on the business of the Peak TV era pointed out, shows are now expected to be “better.” But TV, on and off the actual airwaves, is still a ruthless business. If certain overarching structural points are not delivered upon, it becomes a failure. Many elements of The Path suggest the invisible hand of a “network” — lagging in growth with 12 million subscribers to Netflix’s 77 million — a touch too desperate to make its content work.
The first season’s plot lines became more fraught and tense, and with them, the characters harder to parse. The idea, no doubt, is that these figures are intended to be just as complicated as real people. But take a look the bewildered, contrasting Sarahs highlighted in just the show’s finale: the vindictive private investigator, the brokenhearted wife who yells at her parents for their rigidity, Hawk’s suddenly-supportive mother, the would-be new Meyerist leader, and others along the way.
This is the Mad Men school of characters being defined by their circumstances in the plot, but taken to an extreme. The Paths scripts simply do offer enough to sell its abrupt transitions. Why does Eddie go to visit Abe in the hospital again? Does Sarah love Cal or hate him?
So did The Path suck? No — at least, not in that committed, all-encompassing, old-school sense. As the Vulture piece noted, TV can no longer afford to be outright bad. But how can anyone assure that will not happen without attempting to repeat, and therefore turning toward new, lame conventions, the techniques of successful “good” shows that have come before?
Prestige-y gestures, then, become a way of triggering a Pavlovian response in acclimated viewers on new event shows like The Path. An owl is a dark omen, queasy montages signal moral dissolution and the downward spiral, broken psychologies manifest their dark extremes in unexpected, brutal action, and a troubled man’s sober, daytime hallucinations are deep metaphors which never need to be explained.
One has to wonder how much the three leads — generally charming, even despite Hugh Dancy’s hyperventilating on every line — of The Path made per episode, given the impending paychecks promised for new Hulu series (Jeffrey Donovan with $175,000 per ep. for Hulu’s forthcoming straight-to-series drama, Shut Eye?). With a new season of The Path coming, perhaps less than deservedly by older standards, it’s hard not to wonder if Peak TV is a bubble that will soon burst. Without knowing exactly how the money flows, and with only more content being pumped out every season, how many Paths will it take until everyone is losing money? When will “good shows become the new terrible shows? How is Crackle funding high-concept dramas with movie stars? Only time can reveal this shadowy trajectory.