Any sort of creative consistency in art is a nearly impossible task. You can spend years grinding away at a vision and never see it through. But every now and then the grind gets you a masterpiece. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields achieved just that with FX's The Americans, one of the best TV shows of all time, a tense political thriller and family drama that never had a dull moment. Now Weisberg and Fields are back with a limited series that features an intriguing premise and a dramatic turn from Steve Carell.
There's no doubt that The Patient, an FX-produced limited series airing on Hulu, has a great elevator pitch. Alan (Carell) is a successful therapist who, across decades in his profession, has managed to help numerous people and even write a popular self-help book. Alan is living a comfortable, cozy life, his home and office neat and tidy, as if pulled straight from an interior design magazine. It's not long before that comfy life is totally upended, as one of his new patients kidnaps him, chains him to a bed in his basement, and asks Alan to cure him of his homicidal urges.
It's a great setup, and the first two episodes of the series do some good work in terms of building intrigue and a sense of dread. Sam (Domhnall Gleeson) is cagey at first, being vague about his killings and why he can't seem to stop. That leaves a lot of mystery to unfold, and for the first few episodes there's some nice tension built out of the unknown. As Sam starts to divulge more details about his past, including his abusive childhood and failed relationships, Alan attempts to cure him of his urges in an effort to save his own life and the lives of those whom Sam is thinking about killing next.
The first two episodes, which both drop on Hulu on Aug. 30 before settling into a traditional weekly release schedule, work so well because of their short runtimes (about 25 minutes each) and claustrophobic atmosphere. We spend most of the first two episodes trapped solely in Sam's basement as Alan comes to terms with the horrific situation he's in, creating this fascinating chamber drama.
Unfortunately, there's just not enough material here to sustain the tension across 10 episodes, no matter how short the episodes are. Once the intrigue of the hook wears off, the show struggles to build anything meaningful or captivating. While Carell does bring some interesting depth to Alan, Gleeson's performance is fairly one-note, and the writing suffers as it bounces between various tones. One minute the show is going for shocking violence; the next it's indulging in quirky jokes or side characters. There's obviously nothing wrong with mixing comedy and violence, but it never really works here, and The Patient never succeeds at establishing itself as a dark comedy like, say, Fargo. The show never really commits to a tone, one way or the other, and the result is a bit of a mess.
With that said, there are some stirring moments peppered throughout the 10 episodes. In particular, Alan's arc is quite moving. The more time he spends locked in Sam's basement, confronting his potential death, the more he comes to terms with the father and husband that he was. By envisioning sessions with his deceased therapist, Charlie (David Alan Grier), he comes to realize that he's a flawed individual living with many regrets, even if most of the time he tells himself that he's the most logical, even-keeled member of his family. Along with flashbacks that bring in larger issues related to faith, identity, and generational trauma, the show does a great job of fleshing out Alan's life and therefore making us feel more connected to his attempts to free himself from Sam's basement.
The problem is that no one else here gets that sort of deep treatment, and what starts out as a fun genre romp quickly turns into a rather rote mix of thriller and drama. Across 10 episodes, The Patient gestures at a lot of big ideas but never manages to mold them into something meaningful or entertaining. The Patient is ultimately a scattered and unfulfilling exploration of evil, trauma, and whether human beings really have the capacity for change, and it only occasionally shows flashes of something more compelling.
Premieres: Tuesday, Aug. 30 on Hulu
Who's in it: Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson, Linda Emond, Laura Niemi, Andrew Leeds, David Alan Grier
Who's behind it: Joel Fields, Joe Weisberg (creators)
For fans of: How to Get Away With Murder, Fargo, Kevin Can F**k Himself
How many episodes we watched: 10 of 10