LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The series "The Patient" is a thriller with a simple premise. Steve Carell plays a therapist who wakes up and finds that he's imprisoned in the basement of a serial killer. Domhnall Gleeson plays the serial killer, who wants to stop killing, and he thinks the therapist can help. The show unfolds over the course of 10 lean episodes as an enormously tense and sometimes very darkly funny story. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about Hulu's "The Patient" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: Joining me today is NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon. Welcome back, Barrie.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi.
HOLMES: "The Patient" is a pretty terrifying thriller. Let's start there. Steve Carell plays therapist Alan Strauss, who wakes up chained to the floor of the basement of Sam Fortner, who's played by Domhnall Gleeson. Sam tells Alan he's a serial killer and he wants to stop. As Alan tries to survive his captivity and figure out what he's going to do, he spends a lot of time reminiscing about his own past. Laura Niemi plays his late wife Beth, who was a cantor at their reformed synagogue, and his son Ezra is played by Andrew Leeds. Ezra's orthodox faith has been difficult for Alan to understand and accept. That's led to an estrangement. Alan even imagines himself in sessions with his own old therapist Charlie, played by David Alan Grier. The series comes from Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, who last worked together on the acclaimed drama series "The Americans." "The Patient" is streaming on Hulu.
I do want to note that as we tape this, six episodes of this 10-episode series have aired. We're only going to talk about things that have happened in those six episodes. So we are not going to spoil the rest even though we have both seen it. Barrie, the first thing I want to ask you is how did you respond to that opening? - because the opening of this series is, like, Steve Carell wakes up...
HOLMES: ...In a bed, takes a step and then is chained.
HARDYMON: Clonk. Yeah.
HOLMES: And he discovers that he's chained to the floor. I didn't really know very much about this series...
HOLMES: ...Going into it.
HOLMES: How did you respond to that opening?
HARDYMON: For what is going to become a very slow burn...
HARDYMON: ...It's a real - like, pulls you in immediately. And I think it was really smart of them to do it that way because it is - you know, the pacing of the show is really interesting in that you are in this basement most of the time. You are in the heads of these characters most of the time. There isn't - like, backstory is filled in in a way that allows it to be a thriller - is Alan going to survive his captivity? - and then this other sort of thriller, which is that - what are we going to learn about these characters? And, you know, obviously the serial killer himself - you know, Sam's mind is the one that is, you know, sort of the source of a lot of the tension. But it turns out that Doctor Strauss - that what's happening in his head and his family dynamics and how he thinks about his role as a therapist...
HARDYMON: ...Are going to also slowly become uncovered in a way that is - has its own suspense.
HOLMES: Absolutely. And one of the things I think is so interesting is that it sounds like a joke, the idea that you would be held captive by someone who wants you to give them therapy. And I think there's this very interesting dynamic where sometimes it's hard to tell. Like, Alan is sort of trying to give him therapy, but Alan is also trying to survive.
HOLMES: And, you know, there's this closed set of outcomes, right?
HARDYMON: Yeah. That's right.
HOLMES: He's going to be rescued, or he's going to escape, or he's going to convince Sam to let him go.
HARDYMON: Or he's going to die.
HOLMES: Or he's going to die. And all of those things seem more or less likely at different times...
HOLMES: ...Over the course of the series.
HOLMES: But there's this very interesting in-between space where sometimes he is trying to have conversations with Sam, and it's often very ambiguous about whether he really feels some therapeutic obligation in spite of...
HOLMES: ...The circumstances.
HARDYMON: And you can kind of see that it depends on, you know, like - his ego is involved, too, right?
HOLMES: For sure, for sure.
HARDYMON: You know, like, there are moments where, you know, you can see him celebrate a small success or be crushed by something not panning out. And so, you know, I've been in therapy for most of my adult life, happily. I do not have anyone chained in my basement. I have, however, made the joke before that my wonderful therapist - that I do wish she lived with me - you know, that sort of, like - I want somebody to see every aspect of me. I want access to that help. But to see that other side of it - it's funny. There are ways in which I think this is a better series even than "In Treatment"...
HARDYMON: ...Because you really do see all of the parts of the therapist - you know, the part where the therapist is like, you know, oh, my God, this guy. And then...
HOLMES: And where the therapist has his own therapist...
HOLMES: ...Which I think a lot of people...
HARDYMON: Don't know.
HOLMES: ...Don't know or think is weird.
HOLMES: But, like, I think most therapists have their own therapist.
HARDYMON: No, I think you have to.
HARDYMON: You have to do it. In this case, Dr. Strauss' therapist is dead. And so there's an aspect of it that's sort of interesting because you also know you're just in his head, right?
HOLMES: Right, absolutely.
HARDYMON: So everything that happens in those sessions is Alan trying to work out how he's going to survive...
HARDYMON: ...In some cases if he can help.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PATIENT")
DAVID ALAN GRIER: (As Charlie) I think it's worth noting that he chose to bring you here to work with him.
STEVE CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) Yeah. What do I know about psychopathy? I wasn't trained for this.
GRIER: (As Charlie) None of us are.
CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) Oh, Charlie, I need a plan.
GRIER: (As Charlie) You have to find a way to come out of this alive.
HARDYMON: These are all the things that are happening in the brain of the person across from me when I am, you know...
HOLMES: Right, right.
HARDYMON: ...Talking about my anxiety.
HOLMES: I think it's so interesting because I think that exploration - that the therapist is also a person with vulnerabilities and a family history and so...
HARDYMON: And mistakes. Yeah.
HOLMES: ...And mistakes and things that they're in agony over...
HOLMES: ...And I think sometimes that aspect of therapy is not something that people talk or think about, because the entire point of the therapeutic relationship is supposed to be a lack of personal-level intimacy. You often don't know anything about your therapist's life.
HARDYMON: No. And when they do, it's like a little breadcrumb, right? It's such an interesting thing when you think about how the relationship is slightly - it's not that it's hierarchical, but this is a person who is giving you help and advice and...
HARDYMON: ...And you are compensating because they know more than you do.
HARDYMON: Right? And so this definitely sort of got me thinking about - Dr. Strauss has made errors, terrible errors, hurtful errors with his children, with - maybe with his - you know, and is still, you know, coming to the table. And, you know, I came away from this series with many thoughts, but I - one of them was there's something really beautiful - right? - about we are just human beings trying to help each other.
HOLMES: Right. I also really liked the way they worked with the inner workings of Alan's mind, because when he is having a fantasy sequence or kind of disappearing into his own thoughts, there is an intrusion of, like, sounds from the real world.
HARDYMON: Oh, I was about to say, the sound design, that (vocalizing) - yeah.
HOLMES: It is so interesting and beautiful because it keeps you really - that's how your mind wandering really is.
HOLMES: Your mind doesn't wander in this closed and complete way.
HOLMES: Your mind wanders, but you're also in the real world.
HARDYMON: Even dreams.
HOLMES: Even in dreams. And so - well, and everybody I think has had that experience, like, where a sound or something gets incorporated into your dream. And I really like the fact that, like, sometimes you can hear - like, if there's a tap, tap, tapping - even while he's in his mind talking to Charlie, his therapist, you still hear the tap, tap, tap tapping.
HARDYMON: And they use it in such a beautiful way because it - sometimes it is both to demonstrate the porousness of the thoughts...
HARDYMON: ...To the environment. But sometimes it's also a reminder. Right?
HARDYMON: There's this one sound that, you know, I don't think I can spoil where it's a reminder of something.
HARDYMON: And so you are sort of experiencing it in the way Alan might. Like, this is a thing on my mind.
HOLMES: Well, and that - everything is subsumed by...
HOLMES: ...This captivity...
HOLMES: ...Even when he's trying to think about his own history...
HOLMES: ...Or he's trying to think about options...
HARDYMON: How to help - right.
HOLMES: ...Or how to help the guy. As well as the sound design, one of the things that I really like about the visual world of this basement is that there are two different ways, I think, in which this basement is constantly kind of teasing you...
HARDYMON: You're right.
HOLMES: ...With the possibility of exit. And one is that it's one of these houses...
HARDYMON: The glass - yeah.
HOLMES: ...That's built on a hill so that there's a sliding glass door on one side of the basement. He can look outside.
HOLMES: He can't reach those doors. The other is the stairs which go up to the house, because you eventually discover that Sam lives with his mother. And so his mother is up there. And if it were just a cell...
HOLMES: ...I think it would play really differently.
HARDYMON: I agree.
HOLMES: He's constantly tormented by there has to be a way to figure this out. There has to be something.
HARDYMON: Yeah. And this is a bottle, right? Like, there's - there are not very many places that you go in this series. And what they have done with the sound design and the set design is, I think, incredibly well thought out, really smart, and then, you know, really sets the scene for these actors. Like, these performances...
HARDYMON: ...I think are just - I mean, Steve Carell, who I think has been doing things - you know, we've seen him do funny, we've seen him do - this to me showed me where he could go.
HOLMES: So to me, this is by far his most successful and interesting dramatic performance. It's not pulling so hard away from being funny in some ways. And I think, you know, it's interesting 'cause I think the Domhnall Gleeson performance here as Sam - it's a little less obvious how good it is.
HARDYMON: I agree with you, agree with you.
HOLMES: But I do think that in order to keep a serial killer interesting over 10 episodes...
HARDYMON: And not just, like, weird.
HOLMES: Well, and in order to believe that you don't know exactly which of those outcomes is going to happen...
HARDYMON: Yes. Yes.
HOLMES: ...You have to not fully feel like you know what Sam is going to do...
HOLMES: ...Despite the fact that he's been already defined for you as a serial killer.
HOLMES: There has to be some ambiguity...
HARDYMON: Yeah. That's right.
HOLMES: ...In how he's going to do things...
HOLMES: ...In order to retain that - like, is it possible he would ever just let him go?
HOLMES: Is it possible he would kill him?
HOLMES: Is it possible that he would...
HARDYMON: Would stop.
HOLMES: ...Would stop.
HARDYMON: He'd reform.
HARDYMON: Right, and still keep him. Yeah.
HOLMES: Is this - is he going to stop killing people, or isn't he?
HARDYMON: Yeah. Yeah.
HOLMES: And I think it's hard to keep that uncertainty alive inside that character.
HARDYMON: And they kept it alive in so many different places in this series. You know, there are many peaks and valleys. And, you know, post-Episode 6, I was absolutely hooked. Like, this is one of the few things where I found myself genuinely belly-laughing once or twice and also really moved. This is one of the best series on how to grieve, on what grief is...
HOLMES: Yes, absolutely.
HARDYMON: ...That I have ever seen.
HOLMES: Absolutely. And I think the fact that it is in these compact episodes really makes me feel like they are moving the story. You feel like every episode has a purpose for existing. That purpose is in these scenes, and then the episode is over.
HOLMES: It doesn't feel padded out with a lot of stuff, but I think the idea of doing suspense in half hours...
HARDYMON: It's so smart.
HOLMES: ...Is really very smart. The other thing I want to ask you about that I mentioned to you when we were talking off mic is one of the things I didn't know about this show before I watched it is that it is a very Jewish show.
HARDYMON: It is the most deeply Jewish show I have seen on television. In fact, I think that's one of the reasons I found it so moving, because there's a beautiful explanation of how - the Jewish way to grieve, right? There's a whole thing revolving around the Mourner's Kaddish. His wife, who's died of cancer, was a cantor. And his son, the strained relationship that he has with his son, is an Orthodox Jew. And so all of these, you know, these different ways of practicing Judaism are - and how you might feel about them are really present. This is not to say that I haven't seen Jewish things represented on television, but there was something kind of really lovely and representative about it for me that I felt, like, really moving.
HOLMES: Yeah, and I think television in general has trouble engaging with faith in general, right? Like, I appreciated faith coming up in this show about a serial killer and a therapist. And - but I do think that television sometimes suffers from not wanting to engage with how important faith is to lots and lots of people. It absolutely is part of family dynamics. And so often I think television, in an effort not to either say being a churchgoing or temple attending or mosque-attending person is better or worse than anything else, they just kind of don't touch it at all.
HARDYMON: They don't observe it.
HOLMES: It's not kind of incorporated into the life of the person the way that it is here.
HARDYMON: This was so organic. And also, it was so interesting to see a reform - maybe conservative reform Jewish person rejecting another part of his faith, you know. I think you often see more sort of an evangelical tale of, like, people who have become, you know, more Christian. But you don't often see that, you know, there are many different kinds of ways to be Jewish, and it's sometimes difficult to reconcile all those things when you say I am Jewish.
HOLMES: Yeah. And it's so interesting to me because the conflict that Alan has with Ezra, because Ezra is Orthodox - or at least partly because Ezra is Orthodox, right? Families are complicated - but I think they do such a good job of outlining, like, there are wounds that Alan feels particularly because his wife has died.
HOLMES: There are wounds that he feels deeply that you can understand why he felt...
HARDYMON: A hundred percent.
HOLMES: ...Deeply wounded by things that Ezra and part of Ezra's family - particularly, I think, his in-laws. But you can also understand it's not set up as these people are right and these people are wrong. It's set up as like, what are your obligations to family? And both Ezra and Alan are sort of confronted with the idea that you still love your family in spite of these complicated things. And, in fact, that really becomes one of the sources of tension in the thriller is Alan wanting the opportunity to make amends with and heal with his kids, particularly Ezra.
HARDYMON: Yeah. You know, it's funny. It also makes me realize when you say that because, you know, it was also really nice to see, you know, while Alan and Ezra disagree on the way that they practice their faith, it was nice to see an Orthodox Jewish family just eating around the table. Different ways to be a person of faith.
HOLMES: Right. It's a complicated family. And that's, again, one of those things where you realize a therapist is just a person with a troubled family and with conflicts that they're trying to figure out as well.
HARDYMON: All in happy families.
HOLMES: Yeah. I admired it so much. And I feel like this is a show that has had a little bit of trouble kind of getting a foothold. If you watched The Americans, you know, that was sort of a spy show that was really a family show.
HOLMES: And this, in some ways, is a serial killer show that is really a family show.
HARDYMON: A family show, yeah.
HOLMES: And a very introspective show about a character, you know, a guy who is sort of on this journey.
HARDYMON: So, in short, I think it would be great if everybody got therapy (laughter).
HOLMES: Well, absolutely. And I have to say, hopefully you don't mind my saying this, but I find it very interesting talking to you about this, considering that we have a mental health practitioner in common.
HARDYMON: In common.
HARDYMON: It makes me really happy, actually. It's true.
HARDYMON: It's true.
HOLMES: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "The Patient." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Barrie Hardymon, thanks for being here. This was wonderful.
HARDYMON: Such a pleasure.
HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, sign up for our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes. And tomorrow we'll be talking about "Blonde."
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