"Go out into the day free of pain, free of the past," a pleasant-sounding man exhorts a group of people. Well, yeah, we'd all like to do that.
The exhortation is made by a fella who is one of the leaders of a religious organization called the Meyerist Movement, which is named after its founder, a former doctor who claims to have received enlightenment after ascending a "ladder" of spiritual steps, eventually residing in "the garden," where only the true followers will find happiness. Whether the movement is a religion or a cult is up to you to decide.
The Path (starts Thursday, Showcase, 9 p.m.) is an excellent psychological drama about that very question – are the characters existing inside a cult or doing good works, religious-style, and essentially harmless in a harm-filled world? The 10-part series was made for Hulu and is another attempt by the streaming service to leap into HBO-quality territory.
On the evidence of the first few episodes, The Path is very, very good, if not quite as nuanced as it should be, and essentially gripping and deeply serious. What occasional shallowness might be found in the plotting is rescued by a great cast – the show is the return to series TV of Aaron Paul after his extraordinary work as Jesse in Breaking Bad.
Here he's Eddie, a long-time member of the Movement and one who is beginning to have doubts about it all. His wife, Sarah, played by Michelle Monaghan from the first season of True Detective, suspects he's having an affair, but she too becomes embroiled in a fierce battle for the soul of the Movement. The one who claims to own that soul is Cal (Hugh Dancy), who was once Sarah's boyfriend.
Any drama with Dancy, Paul and Monaghan is worth your time, and there is enormous pleasure in seeing these actors tease out menace and raw but deep vitriol from a script about faith, belief and power over others.
What the series has in spades, to begin with, is a searing surge of eroticism. While anyone familiar with the history of cult movements will know that sexual debasement is a key part of the dynamic of sexual exploitation that can thrive in cults, The Path puts that front and centre. Sarah fears that Eddie is cheating and her deepest fear is that Cal is the man she should have chosen. At the same time, there is something sinister about Cal's lurking, macho strength. This is underlined by the situation of a newcomer to the Movement.
That's Mary (Emma Greenwell), who was exploited by her father and sees Cal as a guardian angel who can save her. And yet the only way she knows how to deal with men is through sex. There isn't a great deal of depth to the notion that women are controlled and defined by men seeing them as sexual objects but, when put in the context of a seemingly benign religious movement, it is fabulously fraught drama.
Under the surface of the plot, something else is also brewing. The FBI has been looking at, and spying on, the group, suspicious that its leaders have a nefarious agenda. It takes a while before all of this becomes obvious and the viewer is obliged to see this Movement through the eyes of very skeptical outsiders.
In the meantime, what we get is a taut psychological thriller. The sinister nature of Cal is obvious from the start and Dancy gives the character a creepiness that is very finely wrought. It is Paul, though, who holds The Path together. His Eddie is tortured, fearful, guilt-laden and worried, and yet he is expected to teach others of the wisdom of the Movement's ways. He is a man continually struggling, and the actor is fiercely good in this kind of role.
There are times when The Path treads too lightly on the matter of religious beliefs – the Movement often seems to be a mishmash of New-Age attitudes rather than a serious faith. But its strength as a drama is in the depiction of men waging subtle wars for power over vulnerable and deluded people.
Empire (Fox, 9 p.m.) is back at last. The gist is this – Lucious (Terrence Howard) makes it clear he will do anything – anything! – to regain power and control over his recording empire. And of course, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has her own plans. Same as it was from the start, but the twisted minds of these two and their antics makes it delicious. Empire will air on Thursdays on the shomi streaming service in Canada. Apparently no Canadian commercial broadcaster wants this enormously popular hip-hop drama in a prime-time slot. And you have to wonder, why?
Also: U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC, 11:35 pm., Comedy, midnight) and that's gotta be weird. Maybe not funny, but weird.