Forget dragons. Forget sinister, squelchy alternate dimensions. Forget fugue-state globe hopping and ethereal elven world building. The maximalist, budget-busting trend in television is aesthetically overwhelming and virtually unavoidable right now. Still, the most fascinating shows of 2022 thus far aren’t the ones reconstructing Edith Wharton’s New York brick by pixelated brick or staging cinematic missions to Mars. They’re much smaller in scope and tighter in frame. They feel unmistakably confined.
The Patient, a new FX drama from the creators of The Americans, takes place predominantly in a cozy ’70s-style basement, where a character played by Steve Carell has been shackled around his ankle. The Bear, another FX show and the surprise breakout of the year, is centered on a claustrophobic restaurant kitchen in Chicago. Severance, Apple TV+’s genially strange series about corporate capitalism run amok, features employees who are essentially trapped in the office. On Showtime’s Yellowjackets, horrors ensue when an all-girls soccer team gets stranded in the wilderness. In HBO Max’s Somebody Somewhere, a comedian feels gloomily oppressed by her return to her small Kansas hometown. On Season 2 of Hacks, a diva-esque comedian and her assistant spend far too much time together on a cramped tour bus.
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The idea of confinement has always offered generative territory for writers: There’s almost no better setup for dramatic tension than two people cooped up together in a place they’d both rather not be. The Patient, which creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have noted could’ve easily been a play, toys with black humor and fluctuations in power between its two primary characters in a way that evokes Samuel Beckett. But the theme also brings to mind television’s tradition of bottle episodes, dialogue-driven installments set in a single existing location (traditionally to save money, but more recently to court a certain kind of prestige). Captivity is where characters, and writers, come out to play.
The Patient, whose fourth of 10 episodes airs this week, draws on the familiarity of its setting—wood paneling, beige carpet, board games stacked up on a shelf—to make a backdrop so banal that the psychological contours of its characters can’t help but stand out. In the first episode, a therapist named Dr. Alan Strauss (Carell) wakes foggily in a bed with pastel sheets and a floral quilted comforter—with a 10-foot metal chain attached to his ankle. The concept is as sinister as a Saw movie’s, without the flamboyantly evil theatrics. Alan’s captor turns out to be one of his patients, Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s brought his therapist home for a prolonged session in the hope that Strauss can rid him of his compulsion to kill people.
What I find most fascinating about the first episode of The Patient, which wraps up in a spry 21 minutes, is how immediately it contorts the dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship. A flashback shows Sam, under the guise of “Gene,” first visiting Alan in his home office. The room is House & Garden–elegant; Alan reclines in a mid-century chair and gazes at Sam, who sits, stiff and uncomfortable, on the edge of the leather couch. The power in the scene clearly belongs to Alan—he has the gentle but implacable authority of the expensive medical professional. But his detention in Sam’s basement disrupts the terms of their relationship. Suddenly, Sam has all the power. Alan’s effort to excavate his patient’s psyche is now freighted with the extra weight of having to appease his captor. By contrast, Sam seems lighter. “I couldn’t really tell you the truth in your office,” he says. “But here, I can.”
Having seen all 10 episodes of The Patient, I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t have worked better as a play or a movie. Midway through, the show’s taut reliance on its own concept starts to falter, and the further it gets from Sam’s basement, the saggier things become. But the interplay between the duo early on is electric, and unnervingly funny at times. Sam might be a serial killer, but he’s also a foodie. A restaurant inspector by day, he brings sweating sacks of high-end takeout to Alan at night. “Good luck not eating this,” he says smugly in the second episode, bearing pork buns. Later, Sam pronounces pho as “fer” so emphatically, it’s almost a microaggression. Carell, uncharacteristically muted and subtle as the phlegmatic, be-cardiganed Alan, remains mostly calm in his captor’s presence, but you’re reminded in occasional flashes that he’s also playing the specific role he thinks Sam wants him to play. There are roiling currents beneath the surface.
Tension is expressed more obviously in The Bear, Christopher Storer’s eight-episode dramedy about an extraordinary chef who returns home to Chicago to try to salvage his late brother’s Italian-beef-sandwich shop. The sense of entrapment in the show is literal and emotional. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) is encumbered by his failure to see how his brother, who died by suicide, was suffering; his mission to save The Original Beef, you sense, is as much about making himself miserable as penance as it is about preserving something special. But much of The Bear also takes place in the confines of the scorching kitchen, where chefs manhandle and crowd one another (Behind! Corner!) and grate one another’s nerves like aged pecorino. The seventh episode is filmed largely in one long take, trapping the viewer alongside Carmy in a nightmare shift of chaos and dysfunction.
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HBO’s gorgeous, understated Somebody Somewhere, which debuted in January, stars the comedian Bridget Everett as Sam. She’s strikingly similar to Carmy: grieving a sibling, reluctantly back in her hometown after years away (the series is set in Manhattan, Kansas, but was filmed mostly around Chicago), and deliberately stifling a talent that can’t help but sneak its way out. As in The Bear and The Patient, abundant flashbacks surface as memories. Carmy has panic attacks triggered by his hazing in elite kitchens; Alan thinks about his late wife and the family’s rift with his son, who converted to ultra-Orthodox Judaism to their chagrin. Sam remembers her sister, whose care made her feel necessary and whose absence has left her untethered.
The function of memory is pivotal in narratives about confinement. In Beckett’s plays, characters who are trapped in purgatorial spaces, or within the frail physicality of their own aging bodies, find (limited) release through the things they can remember. On Severance, a show that imagines the bifurcation of the brain into two selves—a work-based “Innie” and an exterior “Outie”—the “Innie” characters, who never leave the office, are denied this solace. They have no memories of the outside world; they have a void where their knowledge of themselves should be. For Mark (Adam Scott), who’s mired in grief following the death of his wife, the absence of memory brings powerful, if unhealthy, relief. For Helly (Britt Lower), the annihilation of self, and the inability to exist beyond work, is a traumatic shock so sharp that she tries to end her own life.
All of which brings me to a question: Why are so many shows circling the idea of restraint, the burden and immurement of caring for others, the slight insanity of feeling all your options ebb away? “Is The Patient a full-blown allegory for the pandemic, or is it just me?” Mary McNamara asked in the Los Angeles Times last week, a question I’d also been mulling. I’m not sure—the show itself is so steeped in ideas of fathers and sons, of Jewishness, of history and the recesses of the human psyche, that it defies simple characterization. But there does seem to be a vibe in the ether speaking to things that many people have been feeling over the past two-plus years: a figurative sense of walls closing in, of being rooted against our will in one particular place. Even the preoccupation with food feels familiar.
There’s also a different kind of entrapment playing out on television that seems to refer less to being cut off from the world than to the idea that fate can be its own kind of imprisonment. So many of today’s most compelling TV characters feel cursed by both circumstance and their own nature. Think Elizabeth Holmes, summoning a darker, hyperreal version of herself in front of a mirror in The Dropout; Barry Berkman, veering between wide-eyed naif and fixed-gaze psychopath in Barry; Saul Goodman, conjuring charisma from the depths of Hades to face the music in Better Call Saul’s finale. If these characters haven’t exactly been shut off or penned in, they have, you could argue, been on rigid narrative tracks from the beginning. In a moment that feels existentially chaotic, there’s something satisfying about the dramatic tradition of forcing characters to confront their destiny.
Still, I’m grateful for this spate of shows for illustrating what boundless storytelling potential can be found by setting limits. When so much attention-grabbing television seems intent on doing as much as possible as extravagantly as it can, there’s something energizing about works that embrace other ways of operating. In their Dogme 95 manifesto, the directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg drew up a list of rules they wanted to apply to their work in pursuit of artistic integrity. The “supreme goal,” the document states, is “to force the truth out of my characters and settings.” Confinement, as we’re seeing now, can be unexpectedly fruitful—and even liberating.