[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Patient,” including the ending.]
Awards aren’t everything. Quite often, in fact, they’re little more than silly, insanely expensive shrines to inflated Hollywood egos. At their most useful, they draw attention to those that need it — young actors, struggling artists, or otherwise overlooked talents who can turn a gold trophy into years of work in their chosen profession, if not an entire career.
Steve Carell has a career, and an enviable one at that. Our forever Michael Scott and the unseen man behind Gru is a bonafide star and acclaimed thespian. He’s carried major motion pictures and earned recognition across genres, from the kookiest comedies to the dreariest dramas. His latest turn — as a therapist held hostage by a treatment-seeking serial killer in the FX production of “The Patient” — exemplifies many of his established strengths, while still bringing unseen depths to light.
Yet to this day, two points hold true: 1) He’s never won a Best Actor award from the industry’s three most reputable bodies, and 2) the world would be better off if he did. Perhaps both can be corrected this winter.
You can dispute the second contention if you so choose, but let’s look at the history first. Carell’s awards drought most often comes up in the context of his biggest hit: “The Office.” Despite six Emmy nominations, the series’ iconic, irreplaceable lead never won. He also went zero for six in the Best Actor category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards — though that sting was lessened by the series’ two Best Ensemble wins. The Writers Guild, in all its wisdom, made sure to reward Carell for penning the Season 2 episode “Casino Night,” but we’re talking about acting honors, people. So the “best” (and I use that term very loosely) we can point to is his Golden Globe for “The Office” circa 2006, which… no, sorry, doesn’t end the drought. (What satisfaction can any intelligent human glean from being singled out by the HFPA?)
While an egregious oversight to be sure, Carell’s bad awards luck didn’t end with “The Office.” He’s received three more SAG nominations since moving on from Dunder Mifflin, and he lost every year. He snagged a surprise nod at the 2020 Emmys for “The Morning Show,” but that’s served as his only return invite from the TV Academy. The Oscars came calling in 2015, when his transformative turn in “Foxcatcher” put him on the same list as eventual winner Eddie Redmayne, and after eight more nominations, even the Globes haven’t brought him back to the podium (not that it would matter much if they had).
Carell has never won an Emmy, Oscar, or SAG Award — not by himself, anyway. “The Patient” isn’t likely to change that unfortunate fact, but if it somehow does — Carell would have to top early frontrunners Andrew Garfield (“Under the Banner of Heaven”), Taron Egerton (“Black Bird”), and Evan Peters (“Dahmer”), among other contenders still to come — the role would make for a fitting mid-career coronation.
As Alan Strauss, Carell crafts a character both distinct to himself and easily recognizable. In early scenes, set before the good doctor’s detainment, the actor introduces Alan with the quiet intonation and world-weariness of a working man approaching retirement. Gone is Michael Scott’s zany energy (or, for those who remember, General Mark Naird’s rigid outbursts). Carell, with his gray strands combed neatly over a scraggly beard, is easing us into a role that could have gone to someone five, 10, or even 20 years older — establishing Alan’s expertise and experience so when he’s put under impossible stress, there’s reason to believe his sagacity may save him (and, as he mentions repeatedly, that he’s too old to fight off his younger opponent).
Drugged and dumped in a basement to treat a killer who wants to stop killing, Alan never fully unravels, but he’s put through the wringer. Escape attempts prove futile. Speaking to Sam (Domhnall Gleeson) takes concentrated effort, especially after he witnesses a murder, helps bury a body, and confronts a dire reality that may soon become his own. Over weeks in captivity, Alan screams, cries, and pleads, but he keeps thinking, keeps planning, keeps mapping out how his predicament may end — all internal actions that require a meticulous performance to properly convey. Rather than feel lost in Alan’s sea of misery, Carell helps the audience stay clearly connected to his character’s humanity. As Alan jokes to his imaginary therapist, Charlie (David Alan Grier), “the one thing you can’t complain about in here is the food.”
Suzanne Tenner / FX
In defiance of the main subject matter (yet in support of a story about relationships), “The Patient” does bring jokes. There’s Sam’s superfandom of Kenny Chesney, his daily Dunkin Donuts coffee consumption, and those icky extended pee breaks, always taken just a thin wall away from Alan. (Does he want him to hear? Is it a power move?) But Alan is funny, too. My personal favorite flash of humor comes when Alan jokes he has a new title for his book, right before “The Patient” appears onscreen. Co-writer, -creator, and -showrunner Joel Fields, in an interview with Vulture, preferred Carell’s delivery of the line, “Everyone needs to work on empathy, but you in particular could use growth in this regard.”
It’s a great choice, but why he chooses it may be more important. “I mean, there’s no better straight man than Steve Carell, but that’s a really great straight-man delivery,” Fields added. When it comes to comedy, Carell is a great straight man, but he’s also a terrific loon. We’ve known for ages he can pull off both extremes, but what “The Patient” reminds us is how well he understands the tone of the piece around him. Not only is he again debunking the myth that great comic actors can’t handle drama, he’s peppering in elements developed across both genres to better inform this story. Drop another actor into Alan’s shoes and see if they can strike every note Carell does, whether it’s getting a big laugh from an earnest delivery or shaking us to our core through his terrified desperation.
Perhaps most notably, “The Patient” lives between those extremes. Carell, whose offscreen persona will always influence how viewers relate to his roles, wields his warmth well (aided by Hope Hanafin’s cozy costuming), while building layer upon textured layer. By the time Alan meets his end — an inevitable death at the hands of the man he’s trying to help — the loss sinks in across a spectrum. He’s lost his life. His family has lost a father. His dreams of salvaging the time he has left with his loved ones — so painfully realized in the brief dinner table dream sequence — are gone. But the “meshuggena” letter he leaves behind manages to start a healing process for his children. That Sam sends it to them, along with instructions on where to find their father’s body, also speaks to the impact Alan had on his patient. (Not to mention Sam’s final decision to lock himself in the basement.) All this strikes chord after chord thanks to Fields and fellow creator Joe Weisberg’s beautiful composition — what a choice to take a ghastly tale primed for the horror genre and evoke every drop of heart and humanity instead — but its impact would be far less without Carell’s ability to hit every note.
Let’s set aside Carell’s merit for a moment. Sure, an Emmy or SAG Award would mean something to him — all those losses have to sting, no matter how well-adjusted the guy is — but a win would also mean something to us. The world is hard enough. People look to TV for comfort, and there’s no comfort in missing pieces. Remembering Carell’s long history of maddening losses whips up fresh ire year after year, for anyone who follows awards or loves the actor or simply clicks the wrong link about their favorite new show. (Hello, dear readers!)
A Carell victory wouldn’t erase the mistakes of the past. It wouldn’t put a stop to the annual fuming over his “Office” snubs. It wouldn’t fix the many real issues facing our world (please vote!), but it would fill a gap in the culture, without acting solely as a make-up award. Carell deserves to win for “The Patient.” He just also deserved to win ages ago. So here’s hoping the SAG Awards voters do right by the present and the past this winter. Awards may be silly, but they can still serve a purpose.
“The Patient” is available on Hulu.