BINGE-R #29: The Path + The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
THE PATH S1
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Don’t let the spectre of Scientology distract you from appreciating The Path. The Meyerist Movement, the Amazon drama’s fictional religious movement, certainly has elements of the infamous cult – including a revered founder, a hierarchical spiritual learning system, and some very dodgy looking electronic meters – but ultimately it looks at the flaws of those involved on an individual level, questioning how they handle their beliefs. The idea that Meyerism, named for its 1970s founder, Dr. Stephen Meyer (2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea), is systematically corrupt, or intrinsically flawed, is secondary to the theme of what faith can do for, or to, its adherents.
Jessica Goldberg’s show excels at creating the insular world – physically and emotionally – for those who climb the ladder of enlightenment and are surrounded by “the Light”. In the home of Sarah Lane (True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan), the committed daughter of a founding family, and her husband, Eddie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), there are prayers, children’s storybooks and devotional art that all praise Meyer, who is himself at the organisation’s retreat in Peru. It fits into their family life and creates rituals that they readily live with, at least until Eddie returns from a program in Peru with a troubled outlook.
The force behind the Meyerist’s growth, not to mention generational change, is Calvin Roberts (Hannibal’s Hugh Dancy), an ambitious leader whose drive suggests a messianic tendency damaged newcomers such as Mary (Emma Greenwell) take strength from. Dancy has a dry, fractured intensity, and Cal soon reveals failings that serve as his temptations. The teachings of “Doc” are referenced, but they’re less important than how those who believe them deal with the personal ramifications. There’s nothing mocking in how Sarah and Eddie’s marriage founders due to his doubts, or the way she uses an institutional response that drags down others to save their union.
An FBI agent, Abe Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar) is soon sniffing around, following the Meyerist’s public work in disaster relief, along with a former member trying to make Eddie apostate himself. Aaron Paul has no “yeah science” moments here, but his talent for being uncomfortable in his own skin is put to great use, and the storylines expertly fan out before they start to intertwine. As focused as the Meyerist’s are in their various compounds on the world’s failings, there’s a collective illusion of security the group provides, and watching that unwind for the character makes for genuine drama. A person, like a doctrine, can only sustain so much duress.
THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Just added locally to Netflix, this mini-series is so juicy and engrossing that it overcomes what should be an insurmountable flaw: Cuba Gooding, Jr. lacks the menacing bulk and dislocated self-assurance to play O.J. Simpson, whose trial and acquittal for the brutal murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, his former wife and her friend, changed the media, legal and social landscape in America during the mid-1990s. With Simpson, a legendary retired athlete, as the furious, inflexible centre of the plot, the series finds fascinating fault lines to measure. Virtually all of them remain relevant today.
The first and last scabrous joke is the same: of course O.J. did it. Put together by the prolific Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee – both relevant here) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt), the 10 episodes dig into the distorting nature of fame, racial politics, the rampant egos of the legal representatives (particularly John Travolta as Robert Shapiro), and the double standard applied to prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), whose righteous case against a serial domestic abuser is derailed by tabloid attention about her hair.
If the tone feels exaggerated, or even verging on the ludicrous, that’s the strange reality that took hold of the United States during the case. O.J.’s famous televised flight across the freeways of Los Angeles, holding a gun to his own head, is as grotesque as Nicole’s celebrity-obsessed friends, but beneath the venal antics runs a deeper understanding of America’s failings. The resonant performance is that of Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer who got his client off despite the evidence. Cochran is a showman created by the system he despises, and there’s a bitter brilliance to how Vance plays the knowing performer.
>> Bonus Binge: The other O.J. Simpson work, Ezra Edelman’s remarkable Academy Award-winning documentary, O.J.: Made in America, is now streaming on SBS on Demand. Be quick – the first episode is up for just 14 more days, with the remaining parts scheduled to disappear in the weeks following.
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