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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

‘The Patient’ a breakthrough for Steve Carell, playing a shrink kidnapped by a serial killer

Therapist Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) awakens to find he’s chained to the floor in an unfamiliar basement in “The Patient.” (FX)

Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is one of the top 10 comedic foil characters in American television history, but even if we eliminated “The Office” from Carell’s resume and focused on his other work — what an impressive career. From comedies such as “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to indie treasures such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” through satires such as “The Big Short” and dramas such as “Beautiful Boy” to his Oscar-nominated turn on “Foxcatcher” through TV roles way back when on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to his nuanced and complex turn on the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show,” Carell has displayed remarkable everyman versatility. He’s not the showiest of actors, but he’s one of our best.

In the FX on Hulu limited series “The Patient,” Carell delivers arguably the most wide-ranging and effective dramatic performance of his career in a claustrophobically intense and psychologically charged story from the creators of “The Americans.” Over the course of 10 episodes in what is essentially a two-hander that feels like it could have had its roots as a stage production, Carell disappears into the character of the renowned therapist and author Dr. Alan Strauss, who is kidnapped by a patient who turns out to be a serial killer desperate for help.

It’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Mindhunter” and “Black Bird” as filtered through “In Treatment,” and thanks to the crisp writing and the stellar work from Carell and Domhnall Gleeson as the patient from hell, we’re willing to overlook a few credulity-stretching plot developments as we find ourselves immersed in the tense standoff and hooked by the episode-concluding cliffhangers. To the very end, “The Patient” will have you guessing about how it’s all going to turn out — but what we know for sure is there’s no fathomable way it can end well for everyone.

‘The Patient’

In the pilot episode, Alan wakes up with a pounding headache, puts on his eyeglasses, rolls out of bed and discovers he’s in a wood-paneled basement that looks like it was last redecorated in 1994 — and he’s chained by one leg to the floor. “What the f---” he mutters, before screaming his lungs out, not that anyone can hear him.

We find out in flashback that Alan has been kidnapped by his patient Sam (Gleeson), an emotionally distant and socially awkward but basically normal-appearing guy who casually confesses to Alan he’s the “John Doe Killer,” so dubbed because his victims are always robbed of their personal belongings and it takes a while for the authorities to identify them. Sam wants to stop but he doesn’t know how to stop, and he believes the only one who can help him is Alan. In Sam’s twisted mind, his plan makes perfect sense: He’ll keep Alan in the basement and have access to his therapist for endless sessions, any time of the day or night.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Sam, a serial killer who hopes 24/7 access to a therapist will help him stop. (FX)

Alan has a brilliant mind, and Carell hits a series of beautiful notes as we see him scrambling to figure out ways to stay alive, perhaps get a message to the outside world — but also try to help Sam, because if he helps Sam, he might just save his own life. Over the course of the 10-episode arc, we learn Sam works an ordinary job as a restaurant health inspector, is something of a foodie, is divorced but still close with his ex and is a proud member of “No Shoes Nation,” i.e., Kenny Chesney’s devoted fan base. He comes across as completely ordinary — but he has an uncontrollable urge to kill individuals who have done him the slightest injustice, real or perceived. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Alan; he wants to prevent Sam from taking any more innocent lives, and he wants to be freed.

“The Patient” also takes numerous forays into Alan’s personal life. We learn Alan’s beloved wife Beth (Laura Niemi) has recently died after a long and painful bout with cancer, and he has a contentious relationship with his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds), whose conversion to ultra-conservative Orthodox Judaism has caused great rifts in the family. (Examinations of the nature of the Jewish faith run deep throughout the series.)

With Sam continuing to go to work every day to avoid any suspicion about his nocturnal monstrosities, Alan is left with long stretches of time alone in that basement, time to reflect on the decisions he’s made and the paths he’s chosen in life. Carell’s deeply empathetic work has us aching for Alan to be free so he can set certain things right — even as the odds grow increasingly stacked against him.

Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg wisely keep a quick stopwatch on the running time for each chapter, with the pilot clocking in at just 21 minutes and most episodes running about a half hour. Other than the flashback sequences and a series of short scenes that take place in real time in the outside world, we are in that one room for long periods of time, so 30 minutes is a good cutoff point for each episode, lest we grow restless. That’s plenty of time for us to get to know Sam and Alan better and better, and to hope that horrifyingly average basement isn’t the end of the road for Alan.

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