Hulu’s dramatic thriller is smart, meticulous, and buoyed by strong performances yet still feels incomplete.
The Patient’s Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carrell) is a man of ritual. One can tell it from how he cuts his fruit, interacts with clients, and even walks through his home. The deliberate editing from Amanda Pollack and Daniel A. Valverde in the pilot help emphasize this point. Ritual upon ritual surrounds him.
Ritual is crucial to his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) as well. The Strausses—including Alan’s daughter Shoshana (Renata Friedman) and Alan’s late wife Beth (Laura Niemi), who remains both a presence and very present in flashbacks—are an observant, if liberal, Jewish family. Beth is their synagogue’s Cantor, but they also eat ice cream sundaes after eating meat to give you an idea of what that means in practice. Ezra, however, has moved towards a more conservative form of Judaism, which seems to rankle Beth in particular.
This commitment to ritual is initially Alan’s only armor when a client, Gene (Domhnall Gleeson), kidnaps the doctor. Gene, it turns out, is a serial killer who insists he wants to get better. However, the regular outpatient routine isn’t working. So he’s decided to imprison Alan in his wood-paneled and brick basement for a kind of reverse in-patient experience. What’s impressive about Alan’s—and Carrell’s—commitment is that it’s often unclear if the doctor is only trying to survive or if he genuinely believes therapy can save them both. As The Patient goes on, it becomes clear that Alan isn’t entirely sure either.
Like its characters, series creators and writers Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg bring a careful air of ritual to the series. As with their previous effort, The Americans, the duo’s attention to detail is intensive. If anything, they are even more meticulous here, every object, each memory presented and cataloged for future use. It’s interesting then—and not entirely welcome—what doesn’t get used as The Patient reaches its conclusion. Many Chekhov’s guns are loaded, but not all go off.
The good news is the show’s center, the doctor-client relationship depicted by Carrell and Gleeson, holds. The past decade or so has seen Carrell try, largely unsuccessfully, to find a vehicle for his serious acting that could showcase him as well as efforts like The Daily Show, The Office, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin captured his considerable comedic chops. The Patient is the best fit for his desire to go dramatic since Little Miss Sunshine.
Gleeson’s serial killer is a welcome interpretation of sociopathy that doesn’t make his evil seem seductive or magical. He’s not without intelligence or thoughtfulness, but he is often impulsive and prone to overreaction. His lack of empathy is presented as that of a child’s. He can’t understand that other people have inner lives or their own wants and needs. He only knows his, and he wants what he wants now.
In the series’ darkest comedic move, he is also a fairly typical client. He insists he wants to get better and gets frustrated with how long the process takes. At the same time, he dodges every question requiring him to consider his life and relationships on a deeper level and bristles at any suggestion that would require him to change his behavior. You’ll likely need to have been in therapy or be a therapist to really get the joke, but trust this therapist and therapy client—it’s damn funny.
The Patient feel[s] overly fussy and too groomed–dissociation never felt this regimented.
Each episode’s typical 30-minute length proves both a boon and a burden to the series. The length feeds the show’s sense of claustrophobia but also fragments the storytelling. While obviously intended to feel disorienting, it instead often feels inorganic. It can often make The Patient feel overly fussy and too groomed. Dissociation never felt this regimented.
Another element that brings mixed results is how Judaism informs Alan and other characters’ lives. Media rarely depicts the Jewish faith as this complex. At a time when Christianity seems increasingly divided between “mainline” Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) and Evangelicalism of all stripes, it is a welcome change of perspective to see how the same struggles exist for Jewish people as well.
However, the series clearly has more to say about Judaism than just how Alan—and Beth—reacted to Ezra’s decision to become more conservative in his faith. Gene specifically mentions he wanted a “Jewish therapist” but never says why. Alan teaches Gene about sitting shiva and the importance of the Kaddish. Most arrestingly, the show increasingly employs Holocaust imagery and fantasies. I’m certain Weisberg and Fields have a larger purpose in mind for it all, but it remains frustratingly opaque.
Frustrating, you may notice, is the series’ watchword. The strong central performances and good supporting turns by Leeds and David Alan Grier as Alan’s own therapist/mentor make it worth a watch. Still, like the Chekhov’s guns that are methodically set up only to never fire, The Patient frequently feels incomplete in some way. Like a client no-show after an intense previous session, the series often leaves the viewer needing just a little bit more that never comes.
Critics received all 10 episodes to watch. Episode 10, however, did not play a part in this review due to embargo.
The Patient commits to therapy August 30th on FX and Hulu.