At its core a two-hander, and at its best in those moments, “The Patient” begins quite well before losing momentum in the middle, regaining it amid twists and unexpected turns that carry through to the end. Not quite hefty enough to support even its relatively short episodes, the 10-part limited series finally works as a serious showcase for Steve Carell and a nicely creepy Domhnall Gleeson.
The premise sounds simple enough, as Gleeson’s Sam, a serial killer, kidnaps his therapist, Dr. Alan Strauss (Carell), in order to engage in some really focused work that he hopes will “cure” him of his compulsions, or at least help curb them.
Chained to a bed in a remote guest room, Alan keeps playing angles in his head that he hopes will keep him from becoming complicit in Sam’s avocation – or a victim himself – while seeking any lapse or weakness that might allow him to escape or convince Sam to let him go.
There’s a touch of Hitchcock in Alan’s everyman predicament, and more going on with Sam than initially meets the eye. For starters, there’s the question of whether he lives alone, and how that might play into the psychological chess match that the therapist is grudgingly forced to play.
Created by “The Americans” tandem of Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, “The Patient” gives Carell another solid straight dramatic role (after the ill-conceived “Space Force”), and capitalizes on Gleeson’s gift for conveying halting awkwardness, placing him on the opposite side of the perilous dynamic he occupied in the sci-fi movie “Ex Machina.”
Still, the cat-and-mouse interaction is clearly deemed insufficient to sustain the narrative even with the wrinkles thrown into it, and the story detours into a series of flashbacks regarding Strauss’ late wife (Laura Niemi) and the way that he became estranged from his grown son (Andrew Leeds), whose turn to a stricter adherence to Judaism caused a rift with his parents.
The idea that Strauss would use this time to contemplate his own life makes sense, but there’s an element of manipulation in both the way that storyline is presented, and other devices used to get inside the character’s head. On the plus side, Carell’s portrayal is refreshingly real in terms of the character’s fears in this insane situation, challenging the familiar practice of transforming an ordinary person into a superhero under perilous circumstances.
At its best in the opening chapters, which run only about a half-hour, “The Patient” can’t fully sustain its promise and would have benefited from paring down the back story; still, the execution finally proves unpredictable enough to justify the journey and mostly avoid the serial-killer cliches that too often rear their ugly heads.
Odds are not everyone will feel satisfied with where “The Patient” leads, but it does keep the audience off balance, and pondering the resolution a bit beyond the end. If that’s not the prescription for a wholly rewarding outcome, unlike some therapy sessions, the producers at least shouldn’t be accused of wasting your time.
“The Patient” premieres Aug. 30 on Hulu.