Even before its launch, "The Path" was drawing attention as the first hourlong scripted original series for the streaming service Hulu.
But in the buildup of the show, about a faith-based group that resembles a cult, creator Jessica Goldberg had other concerns, worried that some prospective viewers would approach the drama thinking it was about an existing religion — namely, Scientology. She recognizes that there are some parallels between the controversial group and the fictional organization in her show, the Meyerist Movement.
But Goldberg contends that despite those similarities, Scientology has no connection to the story she wants to tell. That vision, Goldberg maintains, is much more personal and emotional, tied to her devastation over her father's death and the recent fallout of her marriage.
"I had my own faith crisis," Goldberg said recently in a dimly lighted bar at a Pasadena hotel during a promotional stop for the series that launches Wednesday. "I got the rug pulled out from under me."
With a starry cast including Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy and Michelle Monaghan, "The Path" explores the lure of a faith that may look to outsiders like a cult. In the Meyerist Movement, followers practice the teachings of founder and former Army psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Meyer.
Central tenets are transparency and honesty as a means of overcoming negativity and achieving enlightenment. Followers must go through stages of advancement known as the Ladder and follow the force known as the Light. And the key spiritual symbol of the movement — on display everywhere (including water bottles) — is an all-seeing eye in which the lashes resemble a sunburst. Should a member question the movement's teachings, he or she is deemed a "denier" and contact with Meyerist friends or family is stopped.
Paul, in his first TV role since his Emmy-winning stint on "Breaking Bad," stars as Eddie, a convert who is having serious doubts about the movement. That uncertainty is causing tension with his wife, Sarah, played by Monaghan, who was born into the faith and serves as an important figure in it. Dancy plays Cal, the charismatic and ambitious unofficial leader of the Meyerists in upstate New York.
"Maybe people will make that assumption [that the show is about Scientology] just when they read the description," said Goldberg, who was seated alongside fellow executive producer Jason Katims ("Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood"). "But once you watch it, you realize it's not that."
Misconceptions aside, it's an attention-getting move and a milestone for Hulu to program the series as its first drama — the service is attempting to fortify its slate of original content, which already includes the comedy "Casual" and the limited sci-fi series "11/22/63." Other shows, such as HBO's "Big Love" and NBC's "Aquarius," have used fringe faith movements as backdrops or launching points, but "The Path" puts the controversial faith aspect front and center.
"'The Path' is really singularly unique," said Hulu's head of content, Craig Erwich. "It's extremely provocative in subject matter and themes. It's a topic that I think people are fascinated with, which is faith, and the extremes people go to for their faith."
Goldberg wrote the pilot during a hiatus from the NBC drama "Parenthood," in which she was a producer and writer. She said she was suffering a personal crisis much like that of Paul's character.
"I just found myself like Eddie," she said. "I was this person walking through my life going, 'None of this is real.' Writing the pilot proved to be cathartic."
Still, Katims knew the show wouldn't be the easiest sell to networks.
"I found out the idea of doing a show about a cult religion — people were not that into it," he said. "But what I kept saying about it — and I really truly believe this — is that you can't dismiss this as a cult show because, yes, there is this religion or this movement that could be defined as a cult, but that is not what the show, to me, was ever about. It was about these people who lived in this world and this subculture and were struggling like anybody struggles. And they really, truly believed in this movement, even though they might have their own demons or complexities."
Goldberg and Katims ultimately bypassed networks and showed a spec script to Hulu, which ordered 10 episodes.
Armed with her initial thoughts about how she wanted to shape the fictional religion, Goldberg met with the show's writers and drafted a reference guide that detailed specific tenets, including key phrases and mythology. "There's a lot of Eastern religion in there, Buddhism, Judaism. We took from a lot of places. It's a little hippiesh too."
Paul, who prior to his role on "Breaking Bad" had an arc on "Big Love," grew up in a religious household (his father was a Baptist minister) and said he drew from that in trying to get a better grasp on Eddie.
"I think all of us can relate to it one way or another, whether it's a religion or a spiritual movement," said Paul, who also serves as a producer on the series. "I'm always in the state of wonder. All I do know is that we're sitting on a planet that is spinning out of control in the middle of nowhere and I'm constantly looking up in the sky wondering what is all of this. I know I'm never going to know. That's just what I believe. But a lot of people believe they do have the answer."
Dancy said the show has him reevaluating how he perceives obscure religions.
"What I've realized is that, first of all, something is only a cult in the eye of the beholder," Dancy said. "Your cult is my movement. There are more people, perhaps, than I would stop to think that are walking around with a sense of spiritual void, with a feeling that they lack purpose, looking for spiritual guidance. And the people that get drawn into them are no different than you or me. We all have that thing in us where if the right person at the right time comes along and says, 'You're broken and I can heal you,' you'd respond."
The actors said they were constantly calling or emailing Goldberg to get a grasp on the faith. Monaghan recalled a moment when she called Goldberg to ask whether her character would ever use foul language. The answer: No.
"Little things like that, I thought, spoke a lot to what this movement values," Monaghan said.
Dancy said he's most interested in seeing how the movement Goldberg has created will endure.
"What I'm most fascinated by, and what we only begin to get into in the first season, is the moment every small religious movement faces, which is: Can they survive into a second generation? 99.9% don't. But first we have to see if the show survives to get us there."