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It's a Banner Year for Pitiless TV

How The Patient and Kevin Can F**k Himself Make a Mockery of Hope.
  • Photos: Suzanne Tenner/FX, Robert Clark/AMC (Primetimer graphic)
    Photos: Suzanne Tenner/FX, Robert Clark/AMC (Primetimer graphic)

    [Editor's note: Major spoilers ahead for the final episodes of The Patient and Kevin Can F**k Himself.]

    They make a mockery of hope: Even though they both have high-concept premises and star beloved sitcom actors, that’s the black thread that ties Kevin Can F**k Himself and The Patient together.

    It’s breathtaking, really. Because for all our talk of antiheroes and grit, most of the dark dramas we love have a tender streak. Saul and Jesse both get redeemed in the Breaking Bad universe. Nurse Jackie gets to hear people say nice things while she’s convulsing on the floor. Even Succession cuts its amorality with gonzo humor. With the exception of The Sopranos (and maybe Seinfeld), none of these series are nihilistic. Not really. But KCFH and The Patient are pitiless. While there are certainly characters who make it to the final credits, nobody quite gets out alive, and if the shows weren’t so well made, they would be almost unbearable to watch. They are well-made, though. Sometimes thrillingly so. And that makes their darkness as compelling as it is disturbing.

    Take those actors. On Kevin Can F**k Himself, which recently ended its two-season run on AMC, Schitt’s Creek veteran Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a blue collar woman in Worcester, Massachusetts who’s married to a boorish slob named Kevin (Eric Petersen). Anytime he’s on screen, the show is formatted like a network sitcom, with bright lights, corny jokes, and a laugh track. As soon as he leaves, it transforms into an arty, dimly lit drama. That’s when Allison plots to kill Kevin or fake her own death to get away from him.

    Murphy’s performance helps this concept hang together. She nails the rhythms of the broad comedy and still injects a little sadness behind the eyes, and she adds a rabbitish urgency to the dramatic scenes that keep us guessing about which frantic plan she’ll concoct next. It’s easy to care about her, even when she’s making dubious choices, because Murphy gives the character so much lively energy.

    Similarly, Steve Carell, forever beloved for starring in The Office, brings an open-hearted generosity to FX’s The Patient, which airs its finale on October 25. He plays Alan Strauss, a therapist who’s kidnapped by a serial killer named Sam (Domhnall Gleason) and forced to treat the man’s homicidal tendencies. But even as Alan fears for his life, Carell gives him the instincts of a true caretaker. We buy it when he tries to help this monster, and when he uses his imprisonment as a chance to do some deep soul-searching about the ways he has failed his own family back home.

    The stars’ relatability creates a fascinating tension with the artificiality on both shows. It’s overt with KCFH, since the jump between sitcom and drama is so pointed, but it’s also there in The Patient, which is structured like a well-made play, where two characters stay in a single room and keep finding reasons to talk to each other. It’s striking to see such deeply human performances inside such blatantly constructed environments, and that’s partly the point. If we empathize with Allison and Alan, then we’re even more desperate to see them escape their oppressive worlds.

    This is where the nihilism begins sneaking in. As they get closer and closer to their conclusions, the series amplify Allison and Alan’s Everyperson qualities, and they tease us with visions of liberation. Alan has one good plan after another that almost sets him free. Allison even manages to steal someone’s identity and move to a new town. Alan’s plans always fail, though, and Allison is too wrapped up in her old life to stay away for long. They both keep landing back where they started.

    Still, we’re encouraged to hope. In the final moments of their shows, both characters have a startling opportunity. Alan is able to take Sam’s mother hostage, threatening to kill her if he isn’t set free. Moments after he puts a knife to the woman’s throat, we flash to a scene of Alan in the future, reunited with his family and talking about the horrible thing he has survived. Allison, meanwhile, finally finds the courage to tell Kevin she’s leaving him. That pulls him out of the sitcom world, and when he’s in the drama realm he reveals himself as an ugly abuser. Later that night, he gets drunk alone in the house and starts a fire that kills him and burns the place down.

    Both scenes promise something sweet, but it’s a feint. Alan, for instance, only imagined his visit home. When he snaps out of his reverie, we see he’s still in Sam’s house, bleeding out. That sweet family scene was the dying thought of a murder victim. In a twisted act of kindness, Sam sends an anonymous message to Alan’s kids, confirming their father is dead. Then he asks his own mother to chain him up, since he can’t control his bloodlust.

    We do see Alan’s son after, and we learn that his grief has pushed him to be a better father. This is as close as it gets to hope: the traumatized child of a murder victim picking up the pieces and moving on. Sure, Alan had a breakthrough about his own parental shortcomings, and sure, he honorably tried to help someone who was hurting him, but structurally, The Patient is mostly about how things don’t change. How they can’t change. How a killer is a killer and a disaster is a disaster.

    That’s not so different from what happens to Allison on Kevin Can F**k Himself. After Kevin dies, she ends the series sitting on their burned-out porch. She has her friend Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) with her, but Patty has recently broken up with her girlfriend and alienated herself from her brother. So now it’s just the two of them, in the charred husk of a house, looking shell-shocked and mumbling vague assurances that everything will be okay. But will it? This final image suggests that Kevin’s abusive, patriarchal world cannot be escaped. You can run from it, reject it, and even torch it, but it will hold you in place. Struggle all you want. You’re not going anywhere.

    Does either show have a point? In The Patient, Alan is Jewish and his son has become Orthodox. The series uses their religion to highlight not only the repressive strictures of extreme faith, but also the history of antisemitism that has made it necessary for Jewish people to protect themselves from outside threats. So does Alan’s inability to escape and Sam’s inability to change reflect larger forces in society?

    And is it true, perhaps, that the patriarchy is too strong to be stopped? Have structures of oppression burrowed so deeply into our collective psyches that we can’t liberate ourselves from them? Are all the cries to “burn it down” destined just to leave us wallowing in the ashes?

    Many of us want to believe there's a reason for optimism, even in the face of hatred, and most of the time, mainstream art wants to help. A well-made work of nihilism, however, can hiss in our ear like a serpent. By presenting a sophisticated alternative to hope, it can threaten to convince us that it’s telling us the absolute truth. If we want to live by a different code, then we can’t just sit back and unwind, ready to be entertained by shows like these. We can’t simply let their stories wash over us, no matter how easy that would be. Even as we’re watching, we have to fight. We have to decide just how far we will travel into the darkness and when we will insist on turning back.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: The Patient, AMC, FX, Kevin Can F**k Himself, Annie Murphy, Steve Carell