“The Americans,” Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg’s previous show for FX, ratcheted up the tension at a methodical pace. His pleasures lay in a rigorous desire to delay catharsis; Fields and Weisberg’s writing team seemed to actively resist giving viewers quick and easy satisfaction, preferring to build scenes, episodes, and arcs that stretched to their own paces.
And their follow-up series, “The Patient,” an FX production airing exclusively on Hulu, suggests that success drove them to lean into this method so far that they lost their balance. 10 languid episodes (okay, just half an hour each) are devoted to telling a story that could have, in another era, made a tidy 90-minute movie. The collision of Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson as therapist and abducting subject seems so hopelessly unsolvable – with Gleeson’s character demanding a cure for his irreparable psyche – that many viewers will likely give up before they reach the end.
Carell plays Alan Strauss, a widower who lives through a multitude of heartaches. He misses his late wife (played in flashback by Laura Niemi), and though his family derives spiritual and cultural comfort from Judaism, he struggles to understand his son, Ezra (Andrew Leeds), taking a turn towards what is described as restrictive orthodoxy. In his life falls Sam Fortner of Gleeson, a marginal personality who expresses in physical violence what he cannot in his relationships with others. Sam abducts Alan and chains him up in his basement; in this bizarre, isolated setting, Sam thinks, the therapy work can really begin and he can leave behind the urge to kill.
Alan is right to believe that this obviously can’t work, and yet that’s the situation he finds himself in. And what at first appears to be a shrewd creative choice by Fields and Weisberg becomes an element holding the series itself hostage. The action of “The Patient” is determined by an erratic thinker who cannot be made to listen to reason; the rhythms of the story have the same recursive, spiraling quality. Carell is a good actor, and Alan’s exasperation and fear are hints that he’s equipped to play well, but we can’t see him pleading the same way for so long.
That’s why imagined adventures out of Sam’s basement are so welcome. Alan fantasizes about seeing his own therapist (David Alan Grier); in these internal sessions, he works on reconciliation with his son whom he fears will not live to live. And her interactions with Sam’s mother and roommate, Candace (Linda Emond), at least add a new note to a tightly focused show, even if the mother-son relationship lacks the texture that would give it credibility. Candace clearly encourages the murders and kidnappings of her son, and yet doesn’t really have an opinion on why she’s doing it.
The answer we come to is that she is afraid of Sam, just like Alan; this, too, makes it feel like the show is imposing a set of facts that don’t quite match. Alan repeats so often that he is too weak physically to face Sam that it becomes a kind of incantation, as if to make us believe it; Gleeson, who’s been really creepy in movies like “Mother!”, seems to be hiding something from us here, like he has an idea about Sam that he’s been keeping in reserve and never revealing. As written, Sam is isolated from himself and only comfortable when indulging his penchant for crime; Gleeson’s performance accurately conveys a sense of that emptiness, so much so that it raises other questions. We learn, for example, that Sam is divorced, but the fact that he was married doesn’t make much sense.
It’s the challenge of Fields and Weisberg forcing their show to play so completely by Sam’s rules; we are left with little to contemplate, but a character whose story does not unfold, more frustratingly than complicated. It’s a force that interrupts Alan’s life more than he is a character. This interruption means that the real action of “The Patient” – Alan relies on his broken relationship with his son – has to happen in his mind.
This is not, on the face of it, a less than valid way to tell this story! But Fields and Weisberg owe viewers something compelling if they’re going to play a relationship entirely in retrospect, with little apparent room for development. Instead, aspects of Alan-Ezra’s subplot — like the nuanced distinction between the Strauss family’s humanistic take on Judaism and Ezra’s rigid religious practice — are understated, stated but left behind. without elaboration as we return to the basement and the chain.
Fields and Weisberg are obviously very talented writers; a less ambitious pair wouldn’t have attempted to explore a character and the multiple issues of his life in one place. (I thought, at times, of “The Mezzanine,” Nicholson Baker’s novel in which we examine a man’s entire life during a single escalator ride.) But “The Patient” doesn’t put not their skills to the best. advantage. “The Americans” played with our patience. But there, the creators also had a charmingly dark sense of humor and an appetite for the salacious, seductive feeling of being thrilled. Slowly but surely viewers of “The Patient” will realize just how committed the writers are to playing it straight.
The first two episodes of “The Patient” will launch on Hulu on Tuesday, August 30, with new episodes to follow each week.