A review of the FX/Hulu show The Patient
Everybody needs somebody sometimes. According to numbers compiled in 2018 by the Canadian Community Health Survey for Statistics Canada, 17.8% of Canadians ages 12 and older “needed some help with their mental health, including for their use of drugs and alcohol, …”. Rounded up, that is 1 out of every 5 Canadians aged 12 and over. A shocking number to be sure. Office employees need help. So do police officers, athletes, lawyers, and just about everybody. Even doctors, and psychologists themselves can require support. You never know who will ask to sit down and unload their deepest, most private struggles. This is what therapist Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) discovers in the new FX TV streaming show, The Patient.
The first episode commences with a groggy Dr. Strauss awakening in a wood board basement room he does not recognize. His worry increases upon realizing that one of his ankles is chained to the ground next to the bed. Apart from that, the room seems like a normal basement, complete with a view of the backyard through sliding glass doors. One of Alan’s patients suddenly emerges from an adjacent doorway. He is Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson). The viewer has seen Sam before in flashbacks the show cuts to whilst the kidnappee familiarizes himself with his new quarters. The patient admits to a rough upbringing, with his father constantly beating him. But, as the doctor points out during one of their sessions, whenever Alan pries for more details, Sam becomes distant, stand-offish. As such, the younger man concluded that the best way to be as open and comfortable as possible with his therapist is to have sessions in his home. This is where Sam finally reveals his deepest impulse.
He kills people.
The Doctor Will See You Now
The Patient comes from the minds of Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg. The latter chiefly earned his reputation with the much-lauded The Americans, starring Keri Russell. Both serve as scriptwriters for the entire series, the story which delves into the minds of two tortured souls who try to reckon with their pasts as they strive for more stability in their present. The set-up is the kind of stuff that surely makes for a terrific elevator pitch. A serial killer wants to change their nefarious habits and needs counselling, so the remorseful villain kidnaps his therapist and chains the poor fellow in the basement of his own home.
Is it a comedy? Well…no, not really. It sounds like material that could, potentially, make for a terrific, absurdist laugh fest. What’s more, one of the two leads is Steve Carrell who, while dabbling in drama every so often, is mostly known for his success with comedic projects. Rather than aim for screwball antics, Fields and Weisberg take the straightforward approach. The proceedings are grounded, taken very seriously, with rare, very subtle dashes of humour that sprout organically from the bizarre interactions the doctor and patient share.
The level-headed approach allows for the show to take the heady subject matter with seriousness and maturity. Think of it as a high-concept idea, one that takes an “outside the box” approach to drama all the while respecting the characters and their struggles.
Therapeutic For Who Exactly?
Aided by Chris Long, who joins his fellow Americans alumni to direct the first two episodes, the showrunners place emphasis on the turmoil both Dr. Strauss and Sam wrestle with internally. This in large part produces an unusual tête-à-tête between patient and therapist. The circumstances under which Alan tries to help Sam aren’t exactly ideal, to put it mildly. What the viewers soon learn is that the protagonist’s personal life is far from perfect. He’s no murderer, but familial bonds unravelled in the not-so-distant past. His wife (Laura Niemi) passed away from cancer. The Strauss’ are of the Jewish faith, and although Alan is only moderately religious, his son (Andrew Leeds) has almost all but cut off ties after having adopted the Orthodox lifestyle. Snippets are divulged of what their lives were like before his wife’s death and after their son shunned his parent’s liberal ways. Even before becoming a literal kidnap victim, Alan was a prisoner in a miasma of drama that shook his life to the core. Will freeing Sam from his folly in some way alleviate Alan’s trauma?
Sam comes off as completely genuine in his desire to talk through his issues. He is afflicted with dark impulses he claims are a result of his father’s physical abuse. That said, one gets the impression he wants to turn the page and start anew. A health and safety inspector for the federal government, his job takes him to restaurants. As a result, he has become a foodie, with a wide and varied taste palette. He returns home from work every night with something new and delicious that he shares with Alan. In a nutshell, the character is a functioning sociopath.
Domhnall Gleeson is an actor who has made the rounds in Hollywood. Looking at his filmography, his range of projects is impressive, to say the least. Star Wars films, Ex Machina, The Revenant, two Peter Rabbit movies, the oddball Frank (which co-starred a Michael Fassbender that no one could recognize), Gleeson has shown the sort of range few of his fellow thespians can claim to possess, or channel as successfully. Writing sweeping statements like “this is their greatest performance ever!” is always a bit touchy. Hindsight can help inform a lot about a talented person’s oeuvre. Even so, it is mighty difficult to not be tempted to say that Gleeson’s work in The Patient is among his best material. Carell anchors the show, but Gleeson is giving the more fascinating performance.
An Office with a View
Sometimes a film or television show’s strength is not felt until one realizes details much later, like finally seeing the forest for the trees. 90% of the run time is spent in the same basement room. To The Patient’s credit, the limited shooting location is not a hindrance. The writing is so strong and the character interactions sufficiently multilayered that any potential monotony that may have derived from seeing the same darn carpet, bed, and yard evaporates.
Alan’s flashbacks, certain other thoughts percolating in his mind, and some moments of Sam at his job offer visual variety, but they are hardly needed, even though well executed. The old saying of a location being a character holds true in this instance. The viewer is just as stuck in the basement as the doctor. Witnessing Sam at work is less a reprieve than it is discovering how his vile thoughts make innocuous moments of his waking life a challenge. It feels more comfortable when the scenes feature Alan in the basement. As long as Sam is in the same room with his therapist, there is at least a chance that something good may come from their predicament.
Prescription: Give it Your Time
Incidentally enough for a series titled The Patient, a decent amount of patience is asked from viewers. As specialists in this field often suggest, and so does Dr. Strauss, it takes time to make progress. The stylishly edited trailer suggests that there is no shortage of thrills and chills. That isn’t entirely true. It does, occasionally, indulge in some juicy thriller tropes. Its main focus however is how its central figures, well, figure things out.
It’s supported by two great performances at the heart of the proceedings (other actors appear, but this isn’t the time for spoilers), and quality writing that deftly pays attention to sensible character developments. At one point Alan starts having therapy with himself, in a sense, which opens up an entirely different dynamic. It evolves slowly, like the deliberate peeling of onion layers. Finally, The Patient reminds us that by opening up and being honest with ourselves, we can find very surprising truths we didn’t think were possible.