‘The Patient’ is a very Jewish TV show. Should it have been more so? J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on September 4, 2022

A few weeks ago, the creators of The Patientdefended their decisionto cast the non-Jewish Steve Carell as a Jewish therapist. Having just binged all 10 episodes of the FX thriller, I can see why.

Im not going to weigh in on who should play Jewish, except to say that Carell gives a powerful and credible performance. I will come out to declare this one of the most Jewish shows to grace this era of prestige TV.

Its more Jewish than The Shrink Next Door, which saw Carells Anchorman costars Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell honored with an aliyah.

Is it Jew-ier than The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? I dont remember Midge saying the entire kaddish. Or imagining herself in the barracks of Auschwitz. Or, in a tense moment of recognizable coreligionist prejudice, dismissing Orthodox Judaism as a cult. Lets call it a possible tie.

Joel Fields and Joe Weisbergs show, which debuts Aug. 30 on Hulu, doesnt have a particularly Jewish premise. In it, Carell, as Dr. Alan Strauss, finds himself in a situation not unlike the one depicted in the film Misery. Only in this case, the Kathy Bates part is a young man named Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), a serial killer hoping to curb his homicidal urges by holding Alan hostage in his basement to continue therapy.

Carells character neednt have been Jewish, and initially he wasnt. Fields and Weisberg said the decision was made later to add specificity and depth to their drama. The show is excellent and tense and largely achieves that depth, but finds it in a familiar place: the arena of fathers and sons. It works, but is less interesting territory than the conflict between Jew and non-Jew that it often seems to be teasing.

While Sam and Alans sessions make up the bulk of the shows early episodes, theyre soon replaced by Alans grappling with his strained relationship with his son, Ezra (Andrew Leeds), who became Orthodox (I think Chabad, though its never specified) during college. Through Alans flashbacks, we see the effect Ezras choice had on his mother, Beth (Laura Niemi), a cantor for a Reform shul. Beth lashes out, bristling at the rules Ezras denomination has about women and insisting on singing at his Orthodox wedding, causing a scandal.

In an unforgivable show of favoritism that keeps replaying in Alans mind, Beth serves ice cream to their daughters non-Orthodox children after dinner as Ezra and his sons look on. Ezra and Alan lock eyes, their pain palpable. Incredibly, the show doesnt explain what is happening. Gentiles unhip to the amount of timekashrut requires between meat and dairy courses might well be confused or think that ice cream is somehow off limits for the Orthodox. The show doesnt care, trusting that a savvy viewer will fill in the blanks. And its right to.

For all its Jewish bona fides a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen, Debbie Friedman and Dodi Li, casual deployments of terms like Ben Torah and Kibud Av VEm,a dream sequence with Viktor Frankl and theKabbalistic notion that were all broken vessels the show seems to be driving at a subtler Jewish theme to which it isnt quite ready to commit.

At the close of the first episode, Sam tells Alan he met with three different Jewish therapists, and chose him to be his captive. The line is a kind of tell. Sam, who is non-Jewish and working-class, has internalized stereotypes about Jews. If he needed an accountant, Ive no doubt hed be hunting for synagogue treasurers.

Sam doesnt seem to be an antisemitehe even attempts the kaddish later onbut his identification and selection of Alan as a Jew jolts their dynamic with a crueler subtext. Alan engages with epigenetic fears. He imagines himself in the gas chamber, the sunken eyes ofprisoners from the little campat Buchenwald staring at him. Its not clear if Alan is a descendant of victims or survivors, though its maybe a logical place for his mind to go as he is chained to a bed and at the mercy of a young killer.

But the borderline sensationalism of these Shoah sequences, shot in black-and-white, feels easy compared to the flashes we get of Alans own experience. Left alone for long stretches, the doctor free-associates. He recalls a patient saying she never went to a Jewish funeral. Walking through a college campus, where he teaches, hes stopped in his tracks by a flyer: March against the radical Zionist agenda, the graphic for which is an Israeli flag with a swastika in the place of the Star of David.

If the marquee traumas of Alans life include estrangement from his son, Beths death from cancer and his forced therapy sessions with Sam, there is also the sideshow stressor of being a Jew among gentiles eager to other him. It may seem like a small thing, but, as we learn from Alans own reflections, those microaggressions have major power.

When Alan imagines a session with his dead therapist, Charlie (David Alan Grier), in a book-lined room (yeshiva shel maala, perhaps) it is the small interactions that lead to breakthroughs. Alan comes to realize that even a well-meaning compliment, for example telling his daughter-in-law she made the best kosher steak, was received as a slight. Unconsciously, Alan had been signaling that Ezras path was less legitimate, too fringe being just as rigid about how one should live his life.

With Alan and Ezras relationship, Weisberg and Fields, the latter of whom is the son of a rabbi, provide a father-son dynamic easily grasped by any audience, even if the specifics of the rift might seem obscure. (All viewers really need to know is that Ezra is, in Alans words, an extreme Jew and that Alan and his wife are not that kind.) Bubbling under the surface is a more urgent story that was maybe too niche, if, at least to Jews, far more universal, a kind of Jewish Get Out.

As it is, The Patient handles Jewish content well, giving us moments that feel authentic and dont deign to explain themselves and in the final reckoning does not at all vilify Orthodox Judaism as one might fear. But the deeper Jewish questions too often feel like Easter eggs in a montage of Oedipal jousting. Alan dreaming he is at Auschwitz is one thing. Recalling a synagogue shooting or thelikely fearshe had of Ezra becoming visibly Jewish, would be something else entirely.

Being a Jew in America isnt as dramatic or dire as being held hostage and fearing for ones life. But sometimes it is and, more often, it can feel like it.

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'The Patient' is a very Jewish TV show. Should it have been more so? J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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