Years ago, any foray by a comedian into drama was greeted with anything from horror to mockery. Who was this dog, was the general feeling, attempting to walk on its hind legs? Fortunately, we’ve passed a lot of water since then. We generally understand now that if you can act funny you can probably, you know, just act, in much the same way as Ginger Rogers could dance forwards too and in flat shoes.
No one has demonstrated this more clearly over the last few years than Steve Carell, who first made his mark in comedies like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin before coming to small-screen prominence as Michael Scott in the US version of The Office. Even if the latter didn’t quite plumb the heartbreaking depths of the original, it still gave its lead plenty of chances to show himself in the round. Since then, he’s taken on more and more “straight” roles, including a high-wire act in The Morning Show as the nice-guy presenter, family man and beloved colleague accused of predatory behaviour by credible witnesses.
Now he is one half of The Patient (Disney+), an intense two-hander (for the bulk of the 10 episodes) with Domhnall Gleeson containing little margin for error. And neither man puts a foot wrong in his performance. Carell plays Dr Alan Strauss, a well-regarded therapist who is nevertheless becoming frustrated by his lack of progress with one of his clients, Gene (Gleeson). When the good doctor is knocked unconscious outside his home one evening and wakes up the next morning shackled in a shabby basement bedroom, he learns why. Gene’s name is really Sam, and Sam is a serial killer. He did not feel able to confide in Alan when they were in his office – but here, now, at his isolated home in the woods, he can relax and speak freely. He wants to be counselled free of the compulsion to kill.
“Serial killer kidnaps therapist” was obviously the elevator pitch from creators Joe Weisberg (the man behind the multilayered brilliance of The Americans) and Joel Fields (executive producer on that show and many others), and you suspect it attracted many parties who were keen to make a tense, claustrophobic thriller out of it, with a different escape attempt every episode and a terrifying showdown at the end. What The Patient actually aims to do is produce an essentially cerebral show, a portrait of an evolving (if forcibly so) relationship, that probes the limits of empathy, the different types of complicity, culpability and guilt, and the meaning of responsibility – as a father, as a therapist, as a creature moving through the world.
To that end, Alan is given a loaded backstory (in flashback) and a rich – and richly troubled, even before he became a killer’s captive – inner life. His adored wife Beth (Laura Niemi) – a formidable woman and cantor in their synagogue – recently died of cancer and they were both estranged from their son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) because of his conversion to orthodox Judaism. He is haunted by memories of them and increasingly by questions of how the victims of the Holocaust resigned themselves to their fate.
It’s an admirable attempt to use the trappings of a thriller to lure the audience into something cleverer and more challenging. As the series wears on, though, and despite each episode bar the finale being kept to a tight half hour (or in the case of the pilot, just 21 minutes), it feels a bit too slow and repetitive. The tension dissipates, past the point of no return for many, I suspect, hindered by a script that is rarely more than top-tier serviceable. Those who remain will be watching for the performances. Gleeson makes Sam genuinely odd and unpredictable, with his coldness shot through with sparks of … something, even if we cannot call it true human feeling or compassion. The desire to ape them, perhaps – to fit in with society even if he doesn’t understand it, and the hope that connection will grow thereafter. And Carell evokes all of Strauss’s fear (he’s an excellent controlled-panicker) and frustration, his irrepressible professional interest working both with and against his desire to escape, and his enduring grief about his various losses. If you can be patient, The Patient will yield its rewards.