During a recent therapy session, I told my doctor that I was watching a new series called The Patient, where Steve Carell plays a psychologist kidnapped by a serial killer, who hopes Carell can cure him of his homicidal impulses.
“That sounds funny!” my doctor said with a laugh.
“Oh, it’s not at all,” I warned him. “Intentionally so.”
I do not suspect he will enjoy The Patient, in the same way that surgeons typically can’t stand to watch hospital dramas, cops dislike police shows, etc. But as someone only familiar with this world from the amateur’s side, I was riveted throughout the limited series’ mash-up of In Treatment and Mindhunter.
Carell plays Alan Strauss, a well-to-do therapist who wrote a best-selling self-help book. Alan is recently-widowed, gets along well with daughter Shoshana (Renata Friedman), but has been estranged from son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) as a result of Ezra converting from the family’s liberal brand of Judaism to a more restrictive Orthodox life. Meanwhile, a mysterious patient calling himself Gene (Domnhall Gleeson) has hit a wall after a few months of therapy. There is a reason for this: Gene is in fact Sam, a serial murderer known as the John Doe Killer, because he takes his victims’ wallets, forcing cops to spend time identifying each of them. When Alan suggests that “Gene” won’t make progress without being more honest in their sessions, Sam abducts Alan and shackles him to the basement floor of a nondescript house in the middle of nowhere.
“This isn’t as bad as it seems,” Sam tells the terrified doctor, before admitting, “It’s bad, I know it’s bad. I just need your help.”
Alan understandably refuses to play along with this, and not just because he wants to go home. As he repeatedly tries to explain to his jailer, therapy requires a safe environment where neither party feels afraid of anything that is happening. But to prevent this soft-spoken monster from killing more victims — and, perhaps, in the improbable hope that Sam might set him free at the end of their relationship — Alan reluctantly engages in the experiment.
Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin made him a movie star, Carell has taken on a lot of dramatic roles. In attempting to show he has range far beyond Michael Scott or Brick Tamland, Carell has tended to lean towards projects where he plays a depressed or otherwise sad character. At times, his performances feel almost deliberately muted, with the inadvertent result that the serious version of Carell often erects a wall between himself and the audience, not dissimilar to the one that Alan notices in his early sessions with “Gene.”
In a broad sense, Alan Strauss fits into this mold. He is grieving his wife, struggling to sort through his broken relationship with his son, and his demeanor with his patients is reserved. But Carell is incredibly present throughout The Patient. Whether he’s trying to desperately talk his way out of this dungeon, genuinely trying to help Sam, or appearing in flashbacks with his late wife Beth (Laura Niemi), Alan’s emotions couldn’t be more palpable, no matter how much he is trying to conceal them from Sam or members of his family. It’s a great, great performance — so engaged in every moment that even when Alan begins singing a Seventies Lite FM classic, as Carell has often done in his comedies, it feels utterly sad.
It’s also a necessary performance, because so much of The Patient — created by The Americans showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg — takes place in Alan’s drab little prison, and so much of it just involves Alan and Sam chatting. We eventually follow Sam out into the world beyond his basement, and a few other people appear in the house — at times with the threat of them not leaving there alive. The majority, though, is talk therapy between our two main characters. Sam is written, and well played by Gleeson, as polite but dead-eyed and lacking empathy. He will periodically explode in anger, but more often presents himself as almost maddeningly calm. So as Alan struggles to get his patient to consider the worth of other people, Carell has to shoulder nearly all of the emotional weight of their scenes together. It’s a task he proves more than up to throughout.
On The Americans, Fields and Weisberg gained a lot of experience blending dramatically-heightened thriller plots with more intimate explorations of familial relationships. The two of them and directors Chris Long, Kevin Bray, and Gwyneth Horder-Payton (Americans alums all) bring a similar dynamic here. The Patient rarely flinches from the horror of Alan’s circumstance(*), but it’s also incredibly restrained given the dangerous nature of its premise. It does not revel in any of Sam’s crimes, and like Alan, it tries to understand what makes him tick and whether he can actually stop. But it’s also great at the subtler material like the fissure that Ezra’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism created between him and his parents(**).
(*) After a while, there are also interludes where Alan tries to work through his options by imagining conversations with his deceased friend Charlie, played in understated fashion by David Alan Grier. These allow Fields and Weisberg to reveal Alan’s motivations in ways he would never admit to Sam, and are also something of a break from the relentless tone of the rest of story. And the payoff to the device is incredibly worth it in the end.
(**) This is an extremely Jewish show, including Alan having recurring nightmares about Auschwitz. Carell is not Jewish, but he also doesn’t put on any ethnic affectations the way that, say, his old Anchorman co-star Will Ferrell did in his own miniseries about an unusual doctor/patient relationship, The Shrink Next Door. He just figures out the man himself and lets the rest follow, so that when we see Alan recite the Kaddish memorial prayer in Hebrew, it feels completely natural coming out of his mouth.
There is always a risk with this kind of project that the high-concept premise proves more exciting than the show made from it. That is not the case here. The Patient opens with a brief flashforward to Alan waking up to find himself in captivity, so it’s not attempting to spring any surprises on the audience. And then it considers what kind of men would find themselves on either side of the table in such a bizarre relationship, and what might happen the longer they keep talking. It’s an idea that could seem ludicrous — hence my doctor’s reaction to my account of it — but taken as seriously, honestly, and effectively as it can be. It’s terrific.
The first two episodes of The Patient premiere August 30 on Hulu, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.