The week in TV: The Patient; Slow Horses; Simon Schama’s History of Now; The Traitors – review
The Patient | Disney+
Slow Horses | Apple TV+
Simon Schama’s History of Now (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Traitors (BBC One) | iPlayer
If you’ve ever wanted fictional serial killer Dexter Morgan to guest star in In Treatment, then Disney+’s The Patient is the US thriller for you. It opens with psychiatrist Alan (Steve Carell) waking up in a dingy basement to find himself imprisoned, chained up, and a urine bottle, bedpan, toothpaste and toilet roll on the bedside table. He has to keep calm and deal with kidnapper/patient Sam (Domhnall Gleeson), who demands help: “I have a compulsion to kill people.”
Written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, part-directed by Chris Long (all alumni from The Americans), the series starts at this suffocating pitch – vast sliding glass doors somehow throwing more bleakness into the room – and keeps going, fusing ersatz reality (junk-food dinners, high-stakes therapy sessions) with escalating peril: namely, Sam’s penchant for throttling people who “disrespect” him.
Other characters heave into view – Sam’s enabling mother, Candace (Linda Emond); his potential victims – but The Patient largely evolves as an airless, two-handed hostage drama. Gleeson, his dark hair making him resemble someone who’s come third place in a Trent Reznor lookalike competition, delivers Sam (violent father; Kenny Chesney fan; a stickler in his restaurant inspector job) curdling in thin-skinned petulance. Alan’s own lucidity fractures as he’s beset by memories (his recently deceased wife; his estranged Orthodox Jew son) and visions, from Auschwitz to his own dead therapist (David Alan Grier): “If nothing else, it’s probably the most interesting case you’ve ever had.”
Gary Oldman’s irascible Jackson Lamb looks as though he’s found all the overflowing ashtrays of 1976 and rolled in them
Unremitting, sometimes jarringly graphic, it’s intriguing (is there any hope of surviving something like this, physically or mentally?), with potent performances. Carell (in another world, dear Michael Scott in the US Office!) is several wisecracking galaxies away from his comic roles as he struggles to stay alive. Gleeson is a study in macabre blankness, subverting the tired trope of serial-killer showmanship. Still, over 10 episodes (of varying lengths), The Patient feels endless and at times monotonous. Whatever I want from a thriller, it’s not to feel as if I’m watching Carell’s beard grow in real time.
Apple TV+’s hit spy drama Slow Horses, adapted from the Mick Herron books, first aired in April and is already back for a second six-parter. Directed by Jeremy Lovering, partly written by Will Smith, it stars Gary Oldman as irascible, hard-boozing, perma-smoking, drily quipping (“You can get coats cleaned?”) Jackson Lamb, a man who looks as though he’s found all the overflowing ashtrays of 1976 and rolled in them.
As before, Lamb presides over Slough House, a dumping ground for agents who’ve made career-wrecking mistakes, with new recruits (Aimee-Ffion Edwards and Kadiff Kirwan) jostling with the likes of tarnished golden boy River (Jack Lowden), tech-misanthrope Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), nervy Catherine (Saskia Reeves) and – series one spoiler alert – fledgling couple Louisa and Min (Rosalind Eleazar and Dustin Demri-Burns).
Phil Davis appears in a brief cameo as a former cold war operative exiting his Soho sex shop to expire on a bus, but leaving word of a “cicada”, the Russian code for reactivated sleeper agents. From there, series two erupts into an espionage-riot involving Russians (“Fuckers never quit!” growls Lamb), planes, radiation poisoning, spycraft, red herrings, major tragedy for Slough House and, at one point, River’s grandfather (Jonathan Pryce) brandishing a shotgun.
This series doesn’t quite equal the late twists of the first, but it’s a solid watch, with fleshed-out characters and moreish plot developments. And of course there’s Oldman, integrity blazing behind darting eyes, filthy Columbo-special mac billowing, relishing his anti-007 stint. As in series one, Lamb is more than matched by eyebrow-arching Kristin Scott Thomas as the MI5 boss who has never met an overblown male ego she won’t at least attempt to puncture: “Is this going to last long?” she sighs at Lamb: “I mean, usually we meet outside, where your lack of deodorant is less noticeable.”
On BBC Two, the three-part Simon Schama’s History of Now opened with the historian looking back over the 77-year span of his life to pay tribute to the courage of its presiding artists, musicians and writers. From George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Boris Pasternak risking everything to write Dr Zhivago in Soviet Russia and Václav Havel leading protests in the Czech Republic, through to the band Pussy Riot standing up to Vladimir Putin and Ai Weiwei defying the Chinese authorities with his art.
As in the subsequent episodes, which deal with everything from racism, feminism and gay rights to Charlie Chaplin and climate change, the past for Schama also serves as a stark warning for the future – witness Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the presidency of Donald Trump. Schama even becomes emotional, almost pleading: “We cannot afford the liquidation of democracy.”
With a series as personally driven as this, the result is bound to be scattergun, sometimes bordering on woolly. At the same time it feels characterful and heartfelt: a charged celebration of the kind of artistic bravery that could never be dismissed as virtue signalling, with a true sense of Schama trying to sound the alarm.
Over to BBC One for the new 12-part gameshow The Traitors, running three nights a week, Tuesday to Thursday. Prize money of £120,000 is at stake, which must surely pay at least one energy bill?
Set in a sumptuous castle in the Highlands, hosted by Claudia Winkleman (serving off-brand Anne Robinson-esque severity), The Traitors has the ambience of a turbo-boosted murder mystery weekend sponsored by the Borgias. The group is divided into Faithfuls and a secret group of Traitors. After slightly tedious challenges to build the prize pot, the Faithfuls can banish those they believe are Traitors. Later, Traitors can “murder” one of the Faithfuls, so they can eventually keep all the loot.
I have issues with viewers knowing who the traitors are, but other than that it’s a riot. I haven’t seen such naked self-interest and gory backstabbing since live parliamentary coverage of Brexit. All human nature is here, and it ain’t pretty.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Patient ★★★
Slow Horses ★★★★
Simon Schama’s History of Now ★★★
The Traitors ★★★★
What else I’m watching
Sky Comedy/Now TV
The return of the witty, preposterous, Armando Iannucci-created sci-fi comedy about spoiled, demanding passengers stranded on board a wayward space cruiser. Hugh Laurie, Rebecca Front and Josh Gad star.
A three-part Scottish murder mystery set in Aberdeen. The shocking death of a local oil magnate is investigated by a newly minted detective (Romario Simpson) and his mentor (Hannah Donaldson).
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! final
Spoiler alert: this was won by retired England football Lioness Jill Scott, while former pandemic era-health secretary Matt Hancock came third. One can only imagine how deeply thrilled his West Suffolk constituents must be for him.