The Patient Review – Steve Carell delivers killer therapy to interesting series

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With fewer commercially imposed restrictions on the length of most TV episodes thanks to the streaming wave, writers have taken full advantage, going rogue for better or worse. Driven by seasons that expand and are limited by the episode, less pressure to streamline the story into the most advertiser-friendly format, allowing for freedom as well as enjoyment. How many hour-long Netflix seasons have felt pointlessly, painfully bloated, yet how many shows have benefited from story delivery over Skittles commercials?

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There were many reasons why the first season of Amazon’s Sam Esmail’s stylish thriller Homecoming was the best of the year – a modern Julia Roberts, sleek and stunning direction, that superbly borrowed score – but the key to its success was rare decision, for a drama, to have each episode last around 30 minutes. It was tight and unexpected at a time when so many shows were anything but, yet only a handful of other dramas have since chosen anything similar. In FX and Hulu’s ten-part thriller The Patient , The Americans writers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg keep their episodes to just 21 minutes and, for the finale, up to 46, a decision that works until it doesn’t. when intrigue begins to turn to frustration.

Steve Carell, continuing to focus more on his dramatic side, plays therapist Alan, who wakes up chained to an unfamiliar bed. Sam, played by Domhnall Gleeson, a recent patient of his, has decided he wants his sessions to be a little more intimate, kidnapping him and keeping him in his house. Sam is a serial killer who wants to stop killing and Alan is the guy tasked with stopping him.

It’s a neat little premise for a low-key thriller – high-stakes therapy sessions with a murderous psychopath – and Fields and Weisberg make a concerted effort not to veer their series into facile darkness, keeping it all down-to-earth and sometimes mundane, a sensible story about a crazy person. Rather than going on a zodiac-level spree, Sam is more motivated by everyday rants, a weird look from someone at work or perceived rudeness at a restaurant, someone who can’t stop killing because society can’t stop killing forces him to tip. It’s one of the show’s many vivid details, from Sam’s obsessive interest in the best new restaurants to Alan’s flashbacks to long-standing family feuds, and with two fleshed-out characters at its center, unfolding piece by episode, it’s a kind of show made with thought and care.

Alan is plagued by unhappiness and regrets like Sam, both a widower and the father of a son whose conversion from Judaism to Orthodoxy has led to deep, perhaps irreparable, damage. The unusual particularity of this relationship (the son brings home prepared food for the children, later refusing to respect his mother’s agency as he once did) feels fresh, tense dynamics about religious difference that usually go to extremes. (from, say, Christianity to a dangerous cult) and not within the same religion, but the script works so hard to give Alan and his family such depth that you’ll often wish it was just them. Trying to blend two character studies into a suspense thriller, Fields and Weisberg often make us want more or less of the other, depending on the episode. Stories like this, of the captive and the kidnapper, are usually rushed through a short period of time, and The Patient feels like it could have been told more effectively as a film. The tension dissipates, conversations are repeated, and while some flashbacks hit, other dream sequences (involving Alan and Auschwitz) really don’t happen, and too many episodes feel overstuffed, slowly meandering toward a conclusion when they should have gotten there.

Still, it’s a surprisingly perfect space for Carell, whose more serious work hasn’t always convinced, his character’s forced quietness and the way he talks to others letting his excesses barely show through. Carell’s dramatic edge is often very similar to his comedic edge, and it’s only when he’s screaming at full volume on the odd occasion here that he slips into ham. Benefiting from a script that tackles a difficult character with difficult empathy, Gleeson makes an effective partner, selling the character’s unpredictable creepiness while reminding us of his humanity. The therapy sessions are rooted in reality as are Alan’s strategies for survival, and the ending is worth points for being unexpected if a little unsatisfying, something that will cause extreme reactions when it airs later this year.

The patient, like its central killer, is both fascinating and frustrating, as the unusual format turns a dramatically juicy thriller into something a little repetitive and poorly paced. It’s a ten-part show about healing that could have benefited from being told in one long session.

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