Depressed therapist meets obsessed patient with homicidal tendencies. What could go wrong?
That’s the device in the new limited series “The Patient,” from “The Americans” showrunners Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg with Chris Long as the series director. Over ten short episodes, widower Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carrell) treats high functioning serial killer Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson) in his Los Angeles office. The tension escalates when Sam abducts Strauss, taking the good doctor home for intensive daily therapy – and shackling the shrink to the bed.
Can their discussions in the remote basement in-law apartment strangle Sam’s demons? Will Dr. Strauss emerge victorious, unscathed and with the subject of a mind-blowing memoir? We shall see.
This “Hannibal” set up, the dramatic but artificial precipitating event, seems like a long way to go to drill down into what makes killer and healer tick.
For me, the juice is in the doctor’s Jewish background, and the flashbacks that dramatize it. Having recently laid his beloved cancer-stricken wife Beth (Laura Niemi), a cantor, to rest, he’s now estranged from his ultra-orthodox son Ezra (Andrew Leeds).
While Beth was alive, Ezra treated his highly accomplished mother with the separate but unequal status of women in the orthodox community. That treatment, illustrated by a scene at Ezra’s wedding when Beth gets up to sing and the male guests file out of the room disapprovingly because women aren’t allowed to perform, wounded her deeply. And the unfair behavior, choosing congregation over nuclear family, still stuck in Dr. Strauss’ craw – in part because he can’t sift through his own emotions.
Dr. Strauss, like Freud before him, is a Jew. His entire identity is rooted in his Jewish humanism, in his feeling that he’s a caring professional, that he can improve the world one tortured soul at a time.
All those days shackled and reliant on Sam’s “hospitality,” drives home the point: therapist, heal thyself. In the quiet hours, in the basement apartment with its wall to wall synthetic fibers, he faces down the grief he’s been carrying (and avoiding): his aimlessness in the wake of his vibrant wife’s premature death, his anger at his son for pursuing an ultra-conservative, patriarchal form of Judaism that rejects his parents’ way of life and diminishes his mother, and his inability to heal his own family.
It seems to me that, more than the serial killer, this is what the showrunners wanted to explore — faith, grief, the mistakes of our parents, and our mistakes as parents, and the great divide in Jewish culture between the ultra-orthodox and the relatively more reformed. And, within that, they are curious about estrangement, how people that love each other can turn against each other — and that the inability to sit down, across a table, in a therapist’s office or at Shabbat dinner, to solve intergenerational trauma.
I’ll leave it to a more Talmudic TV critic to parse whether casting a Catholic was some cancellable thing (It isn’t.) I understand that “The Office’s” Carrell loves doing straight drama (the 2014 Oscar-nominated “Foxcatcher”), and he’s good enough and deepens as the episodes accumulate. I believe he’s a better, more believable comedic actor – in another example, this season’s “Only Murders in the Building” wrings the best dramatic moments from a comic with Martin Short flipping seamlessly from tragedy to comedy, back and forth.
Which brings us to Gleeson’s serial killer, who has an adventurous palate, a day job, a co-dependent mother, a brazen bully of a father – and off-the-charts anger management issues. Gleeson, son of Brendan, who broke out as Ron Weasley’s older brother Bill in “Harry Potter,” is a tremendous actor. He plays Sam as a sad-sack with a lizard-like underside who can pass as normal until he cracks. That happens when someone disses him. Then, he enters a thought loop, replaying the slight until his anger grows inside him begging for a release only possible through silencing the offender.
And then the cycle begins again.
Gleeson’s compulsive killer seems more of a television writer’s construction, a madman built with blocks, than does Dr. Strauss. Their therapeutic discussions, and Strauss’s attempts to use the tools of his trade to build a bridge and get the hell out of the basement, are interesting. But they’re not entirely compelling.
Viewers will likely become impatient with a limited psychological thriller that stretches to fill 10 episodes – and, yet, it’s ruminations on family estrangement, on empathy, on risk-taking and crawling toward an understanding of oneself and one’s place in a seemingly cruel universe (with therapy or without it), raises pressing if ultimately unanswerable questions.
“The Patient” premieres on Hulu with the first two half-hour episodes on Aug. 30.