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TV review: 'The Patient'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Actor Steve Carell plays a therapist taken prisoner by a serial killer in a new dramatic series FX has made for Hulu. It's called "The Patient." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says Carell delivers some of his finest work yet as a psychologist who learns as much about himself as the murderer he's trying to treat.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Patient" begins with a confusing scenario. Steve Carell's Dr. Alan Strauss wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, wondering where he is.

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STEVE CARELL: (As Alan Strauss, groaning).

DEGGANS: Then he realizes he's in chains.

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CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) What?

DEGGANS: And the real horror starts to set in.

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CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) Help. Help.

DEGGANS: Turns out, he's been kidnapped by a patient he knows as Gene, but whose real name is Sam. Sam, played with an offhand directness by Domhnall Gleeson, came to Dr. Strauss with a problem he couldn't really describe until he had him as a captive audience. He's a serial murderer known as the John Doe Killer. And when therapy with Dr. Strauss under a fake name didn't work, Sam decided on a more drastic solution.

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DOMNHALL GLEESON: (As Sam Fortner) It's bad. I know it's bad, but I just need your help.

CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) Scaring me like this is wrong. You have to see that. I know you can see that.

GLEESON: (As Sam Fortner) I do. I wasn't getting anywhere in therapy. Right? And I think that I know why. You see, I couldn't really tell you the truth in your office. But here? Here, I can.

CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) No, no, no, no, no. This isn't good for either of us.

DEGGANS: In lesser hands, the story would unfold like some cheap potboiler thriller. But creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, the duo who also executive produced FX's hit drama, "The Americans," solve that problem by focusing on Dr. Strauss. He's the furthest thing from an action hero, using every tool as a therapist to reach his sociopathic patient, including Sam's mother, who lives upstairs in the house where Strauss is being held.

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CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) As you struggle with this impulse, I want you to protect your mother by not acting on that impulse so that she can be free from this source of pain. You think to yourself, I will not do this so that I can protect my mother.

DEGGANS: Dr. Strauss also struggles with his own emotions, from dreams of interacting with Jews held captive in concentration camps to a rift with his son, Ezra, an Orthodox Jew following the death of the doctor's wife, Ezra's mother. As the story unfolds, the series asks complex questions about Jewishness, faith, what it means to be a parent and a child, how parents often fool themselves about their actions towards their children, forcing the world to cope with the consequences of their mistakes. Carell gives one of his best dramatic performances ever, as Strauss eventually sorts through his options by imagining talks with a long-dead mentor played by David Alan Grier.

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CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) I know it's crazy, but I was starting to connect with him. I thought, I mean, love your patients, but come on, sociopath?

DAVID ALAN GRIER: (As Charlie Addison) We used to discuss not getting too stuck in categories.

CARELL: (As Alan Strauss) Right. It's a spectrum.

DEGGANS: Gleeson does great work here, but it's Carell who holds just about every scene, taking Dr. Strauss through a kaleidoscope of emotions in flashback sequences, fantasy scenes and taught moments in therapy. It's a small story leveraging big ideas to build a compelling tale, a perfect counterpoint to all the empty blockbusters now filling TV screens these days. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.