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It’s hard to imagine a serial-killer drama causing food cravings, but as Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson tuck into chocolate cake doughnuts or Vietnamese pho in “The Patient,” your mouth might start to water. The table the pair are sharing isn’t at some fine-dining establishment, though. There’s no fancy flatware or white tablecloths. Rather, Carell’s Dr. Alan Strauss is a chained-up prisoner in his patient Sam Fortner’s basement. See, Sam has kidnapped his therapist in a clearly misguided attempt to curb his penchant for murder. He’s just keeping Alan well-fed while committing multiple felonies.
In a time when serial-killer content seems to be dominating much of the pop culture zeitgeist, “The Patient” seeks to unpack both the psyche of a man committing unthinkable crimes — and the one of a man grappling with his own fears and disappointments while trying to end a crime spree (all amid the most dangerous of circumstances).
But the food — why all the food? “We’re always hesitant to talk about what our intent is in terms of meaning. But in building any characters . . . you want there to be dimensions, and you want it to feel real. And part of what’s fun about real people is they have these specific passions,” Joel Fields tells POPSUGAR while discussing the hit FX series, which he cocreated with his “The Americans” creative partner Joe Weisberg.
Unlike many of television’s most vicious fictional antagonists, Sam is fully fleshed: viewers learn quickly about his family dynamic, his obsession with Kenny Chesney, and his career as a health and safety inspector. “Which came first? Foodie or health and safety inspector?” Weisberg teases.
“Sam Fortner didn’t leap into our heads fully formed,” Fields elaborates. “It took a lot of conversation and trial and error and different things. But I don’t remember whether it was foodie first and restaurant inspector second, or restaurant inspector first and foodie second. I think that’s because they became so wrapped up with each other that it’s not as if he became a food inspector because he was a fastidious guy and then happened to get into food. He clearly has a passion for this, and it was the right choice for him.”
The duo say they sorted through numerous ideas for Sam’s background, focused on finding not only that aforementioned dimension but also avoiding “falling into all the cliché traps.” Explains Weisberg, “Food inspector — I don’t remember ever seeing that on TV. . . . We had to learn. We had to do some research on food inspectors. How long it takes to get a reinspection is — a lot of people put a lot of hours into researching that. I can now tell you it’s different in different counties.”
There was, admittedly, some research into Sam’s day job that Weisberg and Fields were looking forward to but unable to see through due to COVID-19 restraints: the eating. “There was one instance where we actually sent our script coordinator out to get a very specific elaborate Vietnamese meal that he then photographed for us and told us about and then he got to eat because COVID and Zoom,” Fields recounts, laughing. “So that was painful, but we were very happy for him.”
Weisberg says overall, the showrunners hope Sam’s affinity for cuisine (which was lovingly crafted for the screen by some real, talented chefs) adds some depth to the character and allows viewers to “connect” with someone who, at face value, is seemingly unconnectable. He tells POPSUGAR, “Anything we could do to get him out of the trope of the, as he says himself, robot is good for us. So I think it’s really intended as a point of connection.”
“You go to people who are into horses, for example, and part of what’s cool is they’re all wildly different people in their other life, but then they come into this one place and they have this common passion,” Fields adds. “You could say that for just about anything. And that’s something that’s very human.”
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The food also helps Alan connect with “the outside world” during his forced imprisonment, Fields notes. In fact, it’s the only touchpoint he has with the reality beyond what Sam has forced him into. And Alan’s own story involves food, in some ways. His challenged relationship with his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds) due to the latter’s later-in-life turn to Orthodox Judaism is shown through flashback moments, including minor interactions like Ezra’s own family keeping kosher.
“We wanted to explore both the specifics of the Orthodox religion and also the specifics of reform Judaism and how that’s a meaningful pursuit, and how even what from the outside may appear to be small differences within a religion can be chasms within families,” Fields says of painting the picture, once again, with cuisine. “The kosher food, it seemed like a great expression of that in this family because those choices and how they’re made became so important to them.”
With seven of “The Patient”‘s 10 episodes currently streaming, fans are just weeks away from the conclusion of Alan and Sam’s story. The show’s positive reception has been, in part, due to the actors’ nuanced performances. It helps, Weisberg and Fields say, that Carell was who they had in mind for Alan early in the writing process. “He’s the first actor we thought of for the part and can’t imagine anybody else bringing this character to life,” Fields tells POPSUGAR.
Finding their Sam was a bit more challenging: He “was a hard part to cast,” Weisberg admits. “It’s like the idea of a serial killer who wants to get better, and who you therefore have some sympathy for, but is still believable as a serial killer. Man, that’s tough. And not only that, but because nobody’s exactly done that, it’s hard to even know exactly what it looks like. So it was not easy.”
A casting director recognized Star Wars alum Gleeson’s “incredible talent” and “wide range,” the Emmy Award winner says. “When he came in and read, it was just literally from the first scene he did, you were like, ‘That’s the guy.’ And that when you’re really, really, really lucky, that happens in casting. But when you have such a complicated and odd part, it really was a stroke of great fortune. I think there’s a real world in which we might have never been able to cast that part.”
New episodes of “The Patient” stream on Hulu on Tuesdays.