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A golden age for cult dramas

A golden age for cult dramas

More than a third of American voters still view Donald Trump favorably. Against this backdrop of mind-numbing obedience to authority has emerged a rich genre of cult-themed shows and documentaries. Hulu is debuting a brilliant first season of a series inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The same network is serving up a solid, if in some ways less inspired second season of The Path. And HBO is running the final season of what may be the best drama ever made about faith and the human condition – The Leftovers. Our best hope for understanding current events probably lies in fiction. And fiction, unlike current events, is not letting us down.

The Leftovers

One day, with no warning, a global event occurs that shatters the credibility of both science and religion. That was the theme of Tom Perrota’s book, The Leftovers. It served as a perfect metaphor for the human condition in our era, where neither religion nor reason seems capable of providing a reliable basis for meaning. In The Leftovers, a sudden disappearance of a significant portion of the population, with no conceivable relationship to merit, faith, or theology and no scientific explanation leaves a population grieving and disoriented.

In the story, most people muddle on more or less as before, but a creeping insanity lurks beneath the surface. Disruptive and sometimes dangerous cults emerge to fill the void. Tension between those struggling to move on and those desperate to find meaning at any cost fray the social fabric of a small town, hinting at larger and more dangerous tensions in the wider world. By the way, if you ever wondered why the Romans were so hostile toward early Christians, this show delivers a subtle and convincing answer.

The Path

Aaron Paul, who played Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, anchors this show about a new-agey cult. It’s the attention to the mundane details of cult life that makes this show so engrossing. Dialogue incorporates an entire lexicon of cult jargon, adding a creepy realism and highlighting the characters’ isolation from the outside world. Having been raised among religious fundamentalists, this show is almost too real to be enjoyable.

Like The Leftovers, The Path plays with the boundary between realism and magic, though in a manner that is less imaginative and not as compelling. In The Leftovers, the scenes of the fantastic are tainted with a sense that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, that everyone is so damaged and slightly nuts as a consequence of what happened that you cannot believe your eyes. That technique is absent from The Path, making it unclear whether this is a drama about a cult or a fantasy about a messiah.

There’s a great scene in which an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated the cult is reporting the organizations’ practices to his supervisor. The supervisor is laughing at the report of their strange habits and beliefs. The investigator cuts the supervisor off, explaining, “Well, my wife thinks a virgin gave birth to the son of god.” With an entirely unironic deadpan, the supervisor says, “Yea, but that really happened.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

It would be helpful to understand that The Handmaid’s Tale is less a drama than a horror show. That helps…a little. This dramatization updates Atwood’s story, introducing modern technology and a more current background story. Imagine watching Friday the 13th at night while trapped in the woods at an abandoned summer camp — that’s what it feels like to watch The Handmaid’s Tale right now.

Each shot in Handmaid is gorgeous, a work of art. Despite the grim plot, the beauty of the cinematography makes it tough to look away. It has to be one of the best rendered series on all of pay TV right now.

The Young Pope

HBO’s weird drama about a Pope completed its first season a few months ago, but its still available and it fits right into the mood of the other religion series. I’d like to tell you what it’s about, but frankly I’m not sure I know. It features Jude Law as a newly elected Pope in a contemporary setting. This new Pope is…very strange. Not sure how else to describe it. At times the show seems like a comedy, then veers toward something very dark. As in The Leftovers, the writers are toying with our suspension of disbelief in a some very strange and unsettling ways, leaving it unclear what portion of the plot are meant to be taken literally.


Here’s SNL’s take on The Handmaid’s Tale:


  1. I liked the Young Pope and hope there is a second season. The scenes of a baby crawling out over the pile of babies to the new pope’s long evenings alone. It is in the end a solitary existence and the humor derived from our attempt to connect and stay connected to each other but can’t. I’ve always viewed religion as an attempt to give meaning to all this pain and loneliness through a sense of community and belonging. I sometimes miss it being Eastern Orthodox and baptized a Byzantine warrior for Christ. In the end it was just another tribe for me.

    And…Jude Law is easy on the eyes

  2. I am loving The Handmaid’s Tale while at the same time I find it disturbing and sinister considering the creeping attacks on women’s rights by the religious RWNJs at this point in time. The continuing attacks on abortion, the appointment of Teresa Manning, not only anti-choice but also a birth control skeptic, by the Tangerine Tyrant are bringing this tale to life. Let’s not forget the white nationalists who became emboldened by the Bloated Pumpkin and the sneering by right wingers at “liberal elites” and their celebration of and pride in willful ignorance. In the book all non-white, non-christians are either shipped off or executed. Same with professors and intellectuals.

    This is indeed a cautionary tale and Margaret Atwood was eerily prescient about the future. I highly, highly recommend this show. I always follow it up with the new episode of Harlots, which is a good antidote, a frolicking bawdy tale set in Merry Olde England.

  3. We’re in a golden age of video storytelling because the medium permits it. Movies never could have the depth of a novel because they’re too short. Broadcast TV shows were limited because most of the audience couldn’t follow every show. But on-demand video is perfect for deep characters and complex worlds. Sometimes the plots have too much triple-backflip reversals, but overall it’s been impressive.

      1. I always have a hard time when people say the first season was bad but it gets better latter on. I will approach it with an open mind.

        BTW: I had the same issue with Breaking Bad, first few episodes sucked so I stopped watching.

  4. EJ

    We’re living in the golden age of television.

    Watching American television from outside, it’s interesting to see how politicised it is. The Handmaid’s Tale is very definitely a programme for people who voted Democrat; likewise, The Walking Dead comes across as having strong Republican themes. As far as I can tell these aren’t intended to proselytise their point of view, but rather to entertain the already-faithful: the storytelling is based on the assumption that the audience already shares certain tropes, and uses that to tell the stories.

    I wonder what the future will make of the television of the present? What will they think of this age when they see these cultural artefacts?

  5. Argh! I’m sticking my fingers in my ears and not listening to you. My DVR is already filled with awesome shows I don’t have time to watch and I can’t afford to add another one to my list.

    Well, The Leftovers sounds good, maybe I’ll just catch one episode… Dammit. I’m hooked.

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