Steve Carell Treats ‘The Patient’ to Stellar Serial Killer Drama

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On the cage side, the one that confines Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) could be much less comfortable. He has his own sunny bedroom, with a clean, inviting bed that could easily fit two people, and a bedside table that holds his heart medication, as well as his foot fungus treatment. He has a wide, soothing view of the greenery just outside, thanks to the sliding glass doors opposite the bed, and above his head floats an adorable cloud-shaped lamp that offers a touch of childish whimsy. Nothing to complain about the food – takeout from the best restaurants in town, carefully chosen by someone who has reason to know the best places to eat. But Alan is also chained to the ground by the ankle, and forced to provide psychotherapy to her captor Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), a serial killer who no longer wants to kill.

The well-worn genres of therapeutic drama and serial killer thriller are revitalized by their union in FX on Hulu’s “The Patient” on Tuesday. In today’s landscape of endless, often numb spin-off content, it’s hard to think of greater credit for a series than a truly new premise. Suspenseful and darkly funny, the 10-part limited series also provides quite an original B-plot: Alan’s thoughts on his adult son’s (Andrew Leeds) conversion to Orthodox Judaism, a turn toward social conservatism that takes him away from his more liberal parents. Probably the closest television precedent for this story is on “The Americans,” where atheist Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings struggle to understand their teenage daughter Paige’s new Christianity and her larger quest for spiritual meaning. “The Patient” just so happens to be created by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, the showrunners of that earlier drama.

It’s tempting to praise “The Patient” by comparing it to the series it casually outclasses. Unlike the FBI profiling drama “Mindhunter”, it rarely deals with the sinister side of serial murder. And unlike “In Treatment” talking therapy, it never feels like a sighted acting exercise. Despite its high-profile opening storyline, the series is grounded by an emotional naturalism that extends to all of the performances. Specifically, it makes us care much more about why Sam kills than how he does it.

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Despite a stunted social life and slightly flat affect, Sam is jarringly – and utterly convincingly – normal, right down to his addiction to Dunkin’ coffee. (I wish I was a fly on the wall for this discussion of product placement.) From the start, Sam is singularly obsessed with the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father during his childhood. It is certain that it has irretrievably ruined it, and, ironically, that nothing could be as bad as becoming as violent as his father. A fastidious restaurant inspector by day, he has convinced himself that he is also a fair judge, jury and executioner for his victims. But he’s not exactly a lone wolf; he has an almost mundane relationship with his mother, Candace (a stage-stealing Linda Emond). Both mother and son are admirers of Alan’s books – although as the five-hour season rolls on, Sam begins to wonder if the therapist might just turn out to be another body he’ll have to get rid of.

One small miracle that “The Patient” pulls off is that Alan remains the season’s most compelling character. We rarely leave the wood-panelled basement jail with Sam, but we often do with Alan. Flashbacks introduce us to his wife, Beth (Laura Niemi), who died of cancer not long ago, and his son Ezra, whose devout religiosity has become a corner within the family. With no television or anything to occupy his mind except Sam’s sessions, Alan soon begins to dissociate himself from conversations with his own deceased therapist (David Alan Grier). It also has visions of Auschwitz – perhaps the only facet of the series that isn’t entirely consistent. Dwelling on his broken family and realizing that he had played a much larger role in their fracture than he previously realized, his resolve to escape becomes all the more urgent.

For all its depth of character, the slyly plotted season is not short of twists and surprises. Once Sam drags another potential victim to the basement, the grey-bearded and physically staggering Alan must begin to weigh who he’s willing to hurt or let die in order to continue surviving. Much of the tension in the final chapters revolves around whether Fields and Weisberg can hold the landing by doing justice to the emotional and suspenseful aspects of their series and, as with “The Americans”, the ending seems both unexpected and inevitable. It’s a more than worthy sequel to one of the best dramas of the last decade.

The patient (10 episodes) debuts with two episodes Tuesday on Hulu. New episodes are released every week.

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