Take a subdued Steve Carell and an unhinged Domhnall Gleeson and throw them into a psychological thriller, and you get the latest FX miniseries The Patient. Carell has had a fascinating career as of late. Initially stealing the hearts of audiences in comedies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and playing Michael Scott in The Office, the Academy Award-nominated actor has proven to be one of the most versatile actors out there, from playing his chilling role in Foxcatcher to heartbreaking turns in Beautiful Boy and Last Flag Flying. Yet Carell has never done anything quite like this before.
The Patient is seemingly built on constantly subverting the audiences’ expectations. The first episode begins with Alan Strauss (Carell) waking up only to find himself being chained up in a basement, but before things move forward, the series then shifts back to Strauss’ day-to-day life. Alan is a wealthy psychotherapist who is still heavily mourning the recent loss of his wife Beth (Laura Niemi), a cantor at the family’s synagogue. He’s become estranged from his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds), whose conversion to Orthodox Judaism caused tension between the family that has only worsened after Beth’s death. Alan’s grief and paranoia begin to escalate when he takes on a new patient, Sam Fortner (Gleeson), an enigmatic young man who is plagued by the abuse at the hands of his father. Everything escalates, until one night Sam breaks into Alan’s home, drugs him, and kidnaps him, chaining him to a bed in his basement, where he confesses to him that he’s a serial killer. What comes next is one of the most insane, unpredictable, and brilliantly executed pieces of television of the year.
The Patient takes a seemingly simple concept for a psychological thriller and uses it to dive head first into some weighty themes involving faith and religion, grief and guilt, severe mental illness, and familial trauma. Writers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg walk a fine line between tackling these heavy topics while also executing something that never loses its luster, making for a highly addictive viewing experience. In most cases, throwing a bunch of twists and turns at the wall can horribly derail the story being told, but that is never the case with The Patient as the writing lets everything play out organically. The half-hour runtime for each episode means that there is never any time to waste and anytime the audience might suspect the series has finally reached its peak, Fields and Weisberg throw in another curveball. The series plays out in a way that constantly has the viewer feeling anxious and unsure of what’s really unfolding on screen, balancing melodrama with an atmosphere that feels straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Fields and Weisberg present The Patient as a show that will challenge its audience and make them think. There are pieces of pitch-black comedy sprinkled in, but it is never at the expense of the characters. The more elevated moments that dare to get crazy are never out of place, everything is perfectly laid out. It’s clear that the team behind The Patient knew exactly where they wanted this story to go from day one. Religion is a touchy subject all on its own, but even the way the series displays the tension between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, it is all told in a way that shows not everything is black and white. We see how Strauss views Orthodox Judaism, but we also get a sense of what it means to his so Ezra.
Carell gives one of his strongest performances in years as Alan Strauss, who not only serves as the audience’s eyes and ears but also has his own inner demons start to surface as the show goes on. Despite his character’s flaws, it becomes very easy to empathize with Carell, particularly as he plays out his own therapy sessions in his head struggling to find a way to come to terms with his crumbling relationship with his son and confronting the anger and guilt he feels towards him. We’ve seen Carell play cold-hearted characters in films like Foxcatcher and The Morning Show, but this feels like one of the first times in recent memory where he’s playing the victim of the kinds of roles he’s played in the past.
Gleeson gives an unsettling and often bonkers performance as Sam Fortner, one that starts out eerily subdued before becoming more and more unpredictable. He completely transforms himself into a serial killer, from the line delivery to the physicality he brings to the role. The Patient wouldn’t be as effective as it is without his terrifying performance. As the antithesis of Alan, the audience already has a mistrust and fear of Sam but as his sessions with Alan continue, we learn more about what makes him so vulnerable. Gleeson brings a tinge of humanity to the role but never to the point where it feels that the audience is rooting for him.
Linda Emond’s performance as Candace is another major highlight. Emond is able to convey just how her character is drowning in her own guilt and questioning her own empathy. She doesn’t have some show-stopping monologue that her co-stars have, but that doesn’t stop her from playing a complex character with such sensitivity, and it’s because of this that the audience starts to wonder how her story works out along with Alan and Sam’s storylines.
The Patient does run into some hurdles in its first episode, which at times feels a bit rushed. While the ambiguity was clearly a creative choice, it’s one that may alienate some of its audience and by the time the pilot ends, it simultaneously feels as if the show has reached its climax while at the same time only scratching the surface of what the plot is really about. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill serial killer story; this is the audience sitting in on one long and creepy therapy session, but one definitely worth scheduling.