Steve Carell’s latest drama gives whole new meaning to a captive audience.
In FX’s “The Patient” (first two episodes now streaming on Hulu; new episodes every Tuesday), the “Foxcatcher” star plays Dr. Alan Strauss, an attentive therapist who’s kidnapped and held hostage by an unnerving new patient named Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson). After chaining Alan to his basement floor, Sam reveals himself to be a serial killer who’s desperate to curb his homicidal urges with the help of a full-time therapist.
It’s a nervy premise that takes the patient-therapist relationship to twisted extremes as Alan mulls his escape while trying to save other potential victims from Sam. The pair form an uneasy connection as they learn more about each others’ lives: Alan, still grieving his late wife (Laura Niemi) and estranged from his grown sound (Andrew Leeds); and Sam, incensed by an abusive father and failed marriage.
“That, to me, was really intriguing, because it wasn’t a black or white examination of two people,” Carell says. “There was a great deal of gray area, and that’s the kind of thing that appeals to me: when you can’t really put your finger on who a person is at any given moment. How these two (men) interact is always surprising .”
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“Patient” was created by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (FX’s Russian-spy family drama“The Americans”), both of whom had been through therapy and were fascinated by the inherent drama of the experience.
“We thought, ‘Is there a way to add a thriller element that ratchets up the stakes and makes it fun but doesn’t knock out the realism and truth about therapy?’ “Weisberg says. In real life, “I did have to run (the idea) by my therapist, but I think I mostly just got a smile and a little bit of a chuckle. The subtext is too obvious to actually need exploration.”
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The series’ 10 episodes average about a half hour each and evokes a stage play, with a small cast of characters and most of the action confined to one room. “But we really always saw it as a TV show,” Fields says. “We felt it needed this amount of space to unfurl.”
Part of what makes Sam stand out from other TV psychopaths are his idiosyncrasies. He chugs obscene amounts of Dunkin’ coffee and frequently interrupts his conversations with Alan for prolonged pee breaks. He’s also a foodie and a diehard devotee of country singer Kenny Chesney, whose fans call themselves “No Shoes Nation.” (“I’m an honorary member,” Weisberg jokes, although “I don’t drink and I never take my shoes off.”)
Those specific character details are part of what Drew Gleeson (“Ex Machina”), who says Sam “doesn’t conform to any one big-picture pattern of serial killer behavior” he had found in his research for “Patient.”
“His reasons for doing what he does are in one way simple, but also more complicated than we ever get to the bottom of in the show,” says Gleeson, 39. “There are many contradictions which I think make him more interesting, but also more scarily ordinary, than the usual ‘unhinged genius manipulator’ stereotype. The need for control and to force his idea of order upon a world he sees as beneath him does play into it, though. He thinks the world owes him something, and he can’t handle how little he feels he’s respected.”
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Carell, 60, has some experience playing a shrink, co-starring as a marriage counselor to Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 romantic comedy “Hope Springs.” (“The stakes weren’t quite as high,” he deadpans.) Although “The Office” funnyman read about psychotherapy techniques, the real challenge of “The Patient” was learning how to move around with a manacle shackled to his ankle.
“If you make too sudden a movement, you cut yourself and start to mess up your ankle,” Carell says. At some point, “I did feel weirdly more comfortable with it on. Even when I was off camera, I put it on because it just felt different” and truer to Alan, who “knows he can’t move in more than an 8 -foot semicircle, at most.”
Even when he wasn’t chained up, he made a habit of not walking to Gleeson’s side of the basement set. (“It wasn’t mine to explore, in a weird way,” Carell explains.)
Occasionally, the prop master would forget to unlock him before lunch, Carell recalls with a laugh, and “there were a couple of times that I was among the last to get food because props had already made a beeline to catering.”
“As Sam tells Alan in the show, the shackle’s on his foot, not on his mouth,” Gleeson adds. “Steve was well able to scream for help if he needed it.”