“There are no victims. Only volunteers.”
So claims D (Ethan Suplee), a stoic ex-military type who restores antiques in the backroom of Carl’s (Clarke Peters) San Francisco-based shop. D is full of these kind of succinct insights, but this one in particular stands out in a series titled “Chance,” especially after the new hour-long Hulu drama opens with three separate tragedies seemingly caused by plain ol’ bad luck:
A woman becomes chronically depressed after seeing her father killed in a car accident. A man suffering from brain damage after a rough fall downs a near-fatal combination of household cleaners to “cleanse his body.” A woman who is randomly assaulted by a homeless man suffers irreversible trauma and becomes homeless herself.
To say these people are victims is wholly accurate, if incomplete, and “Chance” isn’t arguing that Dr. Eldon Chance’s (Hugh Laurie) patients should be labeled anything else. Instead, it’s presenting a delineation between chance happenstance and conscious choice. The element of luck is far removed from risky decisions made with the knowledge of where they could lead, and these cases exemplify the former — innocent and devastating accidents — whereas Eldon’s own story serves as a fascinating illustration of the latter: He chooses to step to the edge, knowing full well that simply standing there long enough is the same as falling in.
If any of that sounds intriguing to you, “Chance” is likely right up your alley. Dark in picture and outlook, Hulu’s drama could have operated comfortably under the tagline, “Trust no one,” if not for the phrase’s supernatural associations. After five episodes, none of the main characters feel unimpeachable — including Laurie’s lead.
While there’s a lot going on in Dr. Chance’s life — a divorce, a daughter and a tax audit, to name a few — the moody new series’ primary plot focuses on his relationship with Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol), who first sees Eldon for a consult after suffering from memory loss, poor concentration and a loss of time following severe abuse by her husband, Raymond (Paul Adelstein). The twist with Jaclyn is Jackie — a separate personality who emerges at random and encourages a relationship with Raymond, often by having sex with him. This professional curiosity combined with a personal attraction makes Jaclyn quite the case for Eldon, but his devotion to protecting her approaches obsession as he voluntarily explores various extremes to save this victim.
As we watch the story slowly unspool, it’s hard not to compare Eldon’s journey, deep into the seedy side of San Francisco, to Walter White’s courageous, ill-fated exploration of Albuquerque’s drug world. Both men start out with the best of intentions. Both men have a lot to lose (family, mainly) in pursuing their illicit ends. Both men admit to liking what they feel in “the dark.”
Eldon, though, is quicker to realize the danger in what he’s doing, both for his physical well-being and his general mental health. By the end of the first episode, rather than narrating the psych profile of a patient (as he does intermittently throughout the series), he’s describing himself in their stead; readily acknowledging his choices aren’t morally “right.” “Breaking Bad” spent a good chuck of its time putting Walter in unexpected situations where he had to make a choice. Eventually, those choices added up to him becoming “the one who knocks.” He didn’t intend for it to happen or even fully comprehend who he’d become until it was too late to go back.
Here, Eldon knows the whole time. As a neuropsychiatrist, he’s fully mindful of what he’s doing; so much so he even gets brain scans to make sure a tumor isn’t affecting his decision-making skills. In creating a lead character with such self-awareness, “Chance” works both as an introspective psychological thriller and an attempt at the next evolutionary step in television protagonists. To the latter point, Walter was, perhaps, the pinnacle of TV antiheroes. At the very least, he was one of the last great antiheroes, as creators have tried and failed to imitate him while audiences have tried and failed to embrace his many new iterations.
An actual professor, Eldon is depicted as a student himself; a self-evaluated case study on the allure of breaking bad when you have a recognizable and recognized moral imperative to do otherwise. Why he does what he does can be rationalized, sure, but not by him — not anymore. He knows it runs deeper, and secrets within his past are presented as evidence to his understanding, rather than evidence against his choices.
The series itself, directed and produced by “Room” helmer Lenny Abrahamson, gives off a distinct noir vibe as Eldon slowly assumes the role of a private investigator more than a neuropsychiatrist. While his profession is always a part of him, he’s driven by an inherent curiosity typically associated with ex-cops for hire, and his actions take him places far removed from the sheltered walls of academia. San Francisco is captured with an eerie eye toward its stark hallways and cramped quarters, and exterior scenes offer honed glimpses of a wide world narrowed to a singular vision.
“Chance” sometimes feels like it’s a mystery without a question, operating best when Eldon is the focus instead of Jaclyn, his indefinable patient. The series is also far from a pulse-pounding ride, a la “Breaking Bad,” as most of the first five episodes are spent establishing motivations. But “Chance” is buoyed by a strong supporting turn from Embry and an aptly nuanced take from the hot-like-fire Laurie, meaning audiences open to a little self-reflection should volunteer to be victims for this one.
“Chance” premieres Wednesday, October 18 on Hulu with new episodes every week.