While best known as Michael Scott, “The Office’s” softhearted blockhead of a boss, Steve Carell has quietly carved out quite a resume in the oft-generic genre of father-son stories. For heart-tugging dramas “Beautiful Boy” and “Last Flag Flying,” he’s the heroic father, stopping at nothing to do right by his son. Carell makes an about-face in the 2013 indie “The Way Way Back” as the belittling step-father; a hostile intruder to his unwanted son (played by Liam James) and the film’s barely tolerated villain. Even as a mere figure of a father, Carell comes full circle in “Foxcatcher,” transforming into the torturous wrestling coach John E. du Pont, who assumes predatory dominance over the young athlete who lives on his estate.
Earning mugs engraved with “Best Dad” and “Worst Dad,” all within the last 10 years, is a feat unto itself, and proves the funnyman from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Space Force” is still pushing himself into fresh territory. “The Patient” (another FX production available only on Hulu) continues the trend. While ostensibly about a therapist kidnapped by a troubled young man he’s treating, the psychological thriller from Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (in their first collaboration since “The Americans”) is really a father-son story — two father-son stories, it turns out, and Carell’s carries even more prominence, sparks even more curiosity, than the killer’s.
Before oh-so-casually revealing its nasty little twist, the 21-minute(!) premiere opens as so many stories do: Dr. Alan Strauss (Carell) wakes up in bed. He blinks. He puts on his glasses, and only then does a slight look of confusion crosses his bearded face. This isn’t his bedroom. It’s a basement. There’s toothpaste and prescription pills on one nightstand, toilet paper and a bedpan on the other, but — explaining the chamber pot’s worrisome implication — there’s also a chain shackled to Alan’s ankle. He stretches for the nearest door, but it’s too far. The closest window is also barely, cruelly, out of reach. He shouts. He screams. His voice reaches its highest, most frightened octave, then trails off. He’s stuck there. But why?
Via flashbacks, a picture starts to form. Alan is a well-regarded therapist, the author of a known book, and still sees patients in his home office. Among the three or four shown, one man stands out. Gene, played by Domhnall Gleeson, comes to sessions wearing a hat and sunglasses. He claims he has “oversensitive” eyes, but many of his vague descriptions also feel a bit far-fetched. He complains about his lack of a social life and general discontent. He worries about how often he gets angry, but stops short of remembering any specific instances. Alan pays no mind, as any therapist should — choosing instead to respect Gene’s explanations and boundaries and trust that his willingness to be there, to seek therapy, will draw out further details in the future.
“In my experience, anyone who has come this far, who’s made the choice to come to therapy and keep hammering away at the hard things, they can be helped,” Alan says — a statement that, though oblivious to him at the time, seals his fate.
Back in the basement, Gene walks in and confirms Alan’s suspicions. Gene, whose name is actually Sam and whose eyes are just fine, has imprisoned his therapist in order to obtain round-the-clock care. Sam is a serial killer. He takes out his anger on people he deems to “deserve it,” but he feels wretched once the compulsive deed is done. “I know this has to end, this has to stop, I just don’t know how,” he tells Alan.
A killer who wants nothing more than to stop killing is an intriguing starting point — one Dr. Strauss may have appreciated himself, had his life not been dependent on cracking the case — and “The Patient” exemplifies both the tension of Alan’s captivity as well as the humanity of his shared goal with Sam. They both want him to stop killing. They both want him to feel better. Except it’s Alan’s life that depends on a successful treatment. Fields and Weisberg work quickly and efficiently to engage Alan with the task at hand, though they never let his personal freedom drift far from mind. At first, he’s focused on convincing Sam to let him go. As that possibility drifts away, he remains torn over trying to heal Sam’s psychological scars and doing whatever it takes to get out of his basement alive.
Suzanne Tenner / FX
Which brings us to Sam. As written by the two creators (who penned every episode) and played with unsettling “neighbor next door”-ness by Gleeson, Sam isn’t a man of two minds (one a ruthless killer, the other an average Joe); he doesn’t have menacing ticks or unheard-of additional hobbies. He works a 9-to-5 desk job. He loves Kenny Chesney. He’s a foodie with a diverse palette. And to his credit, he confesses the root of his anger, his history of violence, to Alan before the kidnapping. “My dad beat the shit out of me when I was a little kid, and I think it fucked me up,” he says.
“The Patient” doesn’t look much further than that in untangling Sam’s homicidal urges, but in respecting the complexity of a psyche shaped by childhood abuse, it also makes a convincing case not to over-complicate its focus. As Alan tries to link Sam’s savage instincts toward others to the savagery Sam suffered at the hands of his dad, a parallel story emerges with Alan and his son, Ezra (Andrew Leeds). No, Alan isn’t an abusive father. By typical metrics, he’s a great dad, even when his son’s “rebellious” phase (Alan’s words) extends deep into adulthood. But as Alan’s wife and Ezra’s mother Beth (Laura Niemi) succumbs to cancer, their emotional bond is fractured by their ideological differences, and all Alan can do, locked in another son’s dungeon, is think about what he could’ve done differently.
For some, seeing Alan’s personal life eclipse the dark and twisted antics of a killer may be frustrating. “The Patient” isn’t “Mindhunter” or “Black Bird.” It’s more compassionate and less creepy. There’s still at least one instance reminiscent of “The Americans'” infamous suitcase scene, but even that gag-inducing bit of body horror conveys how the awful, definitive nature of death weighs on both the victim and the killer. Their sessions’ inevitably talky nature tend toward repetition, and attempts to break up the series’ recurring familiarity — via restrained dark comedy and occasional trips outside the basement (with Sam, typically for work or at Alan’s urging) — are only sporadically successful.
But Carell makes up for any fallow periods. Fields and Weisberg tend toward light exposition, often leaving their characters’ interior lives up to the actors. Such trust helped Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell create two iconic television characters, and even in just 10 half-hour episodes, it helps Carell color in the many shades of Dr. Strauss. Throughout “The Patient,” Alan’s mental state is as isolated as his physical self. So much of our interpretation of his intentions are left up to Carell’s meticulous choices in posture and pronunciation. Later episodes give him the outlet of an imaginary therapist (David Alan Grier, playing Alan’s one-time counselor who he visits for guidance), but even those bluntly informative conversations emphasize the disparity between what Alan allows Sam to glimpse and what he’s really feeling. They add depth to Carell’s performance, as well as his character.
Similar to the show itself, Carell’s turn isn’t loud or attention-seeking; it’s thoughtful and lived-in. By the end, your satisfaction with the resolution may vary, but your investment in another father-son story — steered by a man who’s been through a few — is rewarded with an illuminating portrait of (at least) two lives. And isn’t that what we all seek from therapy? A little illumination?
FX’s “The Patient” premieres Tuesday, August 30 on Hulu with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through the October 25 finale.