What would you do if you suddenly woke up imprisoned in the basement of a serial killer who claims you’re the only one who can stop them from killing again? That’s the premise of ‘The Patient,’ the new series from Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (The Americans).
Episode One: “Intake”
After a Saw-like opening in which Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) discovers that he’s chained to a bed in a strange basement, “Intake” jumps back an undisclosed amount of time to introduce the therapist and his daily routine. He’s a regular guy, with a successful practice (we see a rotation of clients) as well as a family he may not be incredibly close with that’s composed of two adult children Shoshana (Renata Friedman, heard but not seen) and Ezra (Andrew Leeds). Adding a splash of tragedy is the reveal that Alan is a widower; his wife Beth (Laura Niemi) recently passed and he still has vivid nightmares of her death.
Among Alan’s patients is newcomer “Gene” (Domhnall Gleeson), who hides his face behind a baseball cap and sunglasses. “Gene” seems withdrawn, to the point that Alan outright confronts him about his evasiveness. “Gene” also has a telling nervous tic wherein he rubs the skin between his thumb and index finger, which – in TV – is a shorthand to indicate that he’s upset, aggravated or that he’s not telling the truth.
It’s not long before Alan is attacked in his home one night by his client, who quickly reveals that his real name is Sam Fortner. Sam is a serial killer and he’s brought Alan to a deserted location in the woods to continue their therapy. He claims he wants to change, but Sam also knows that he’ll kill again and he demands that Dr. Strauss help him.
Alan’s confusion, panic and desperation under pressure is hugely compelling; it’s just unfortunate that the opening framing device steals some of its power since we already knew this was coming.
The resulting tete-a-tete as Alan pleads for his release and Sam extinguishes hope for a quick resolution by declaring his intent to kill effectively sets up the series to come, though that’s about as far as the pilot gets. It’s an understated first episode that winds up feeling more like table setting than anything else. It’s intriguing, but does ‘The Patient’ have enough juice to sustain such a contained story over nine more episodes?
Episode Two: “Alan Learns To Meditate”
If the first episode is all about the set-up, the second entry establishes a format for episodes to come. In addition to Alan’s recurring dream of brutally stabbing Sam to death, we start to glean more insight about who Sam is and his work in food inspection (hence the other recurring bit where the killer affectionately describes the food he delivers to Alan each day).
The repeated bit when Alan attempts to convince Sam to let him go is necessary for the character, but it does feel like wasted screen time considering how short the episodes are. It’s evident from “Alan Learns To Meditate” that, aside from flashbacks to Alan’s past, the series will be principally contained to the events in the basement. Director Chris Long does what he can to keep the space visually engaging (the overhead shots break up some of the monotony), but the reality is that this is a relatively static series that could just as easily be a play.
That’s not an inherent criticism: thus far, the mostly single location keeps our focus entirely on Carell and Gleeson’s grounded performances. For now that’s more than enough*.
*Admittedly though: after just two episodes it’s starting to feel slightly constricting. Perhaps the intention is to make audiences feel as trapped and listless as Alan himself?
Minor criticisms aside, there remains a great deal of tension and intrigue as Alan negotiates a path forward to continue Sam’s treatment under duress and, in the process, keep himself (and the unseen owner of the Greek restaurant) alive.
Episode two also ends on a great cliffhanger as Alan calls for help after hearing creaking floorboards overhead. “Alan Learns To Meditate” ends with a figure coming down the stairs, which immediately makes you want to hit play on the next episode.
Will Alan escape so quickly? Methinks there’s another twist coming in episode three.
The Bottom Line
The first two episodes of ‘The Patient’ confirm that this is more of a slow, brooding series than Fields and Weisberg’s viscerally thrilling spy series. Carell and Gleeson are both relatively understated in ways that feels more akin to a slow simmering play and while the brief 30 minute episode run times are more accessible, it often seems as though the action is only just heating up when things ends in a cliffhanger.
Overall, ‘The Patient’ is solid, but it’s not quite appointment television just yet.
‘The Patient’ airs new episodes weekly on Hulu (in the US) and Disney+ (in Canada)