Between The Night Manager, Veep and now Chance, a new Hulu series adapted from a nasty Kem Nunn novel, Hugh Laurie has had an exceptional year in television. The Hulu program stands out slightly above the rest, considering its resonant dialogue with the Oxford-born Laurie’s most famous role. Like House, the medical drama that made him a household name and a mainstay on awards shows, Chance is an analytically stimulating series about a tortured doctor that takes a Laurie character’s full-of-import last name as its title.
But Chance exercises a strikingly different side of the actor: Eldon Chance, a forensic neuropsychiatrist based in San Francisco, is flawed and brooding, yes, but also soft-spoken, discreet and considerably low-charisma — traits that don’t quite fit the TV vogue for pushy, take-charge antiheroes. Here’s a typical beat: While conducting internet research at home, Chance reaches for a refill of wine; he realizes the bottle is empty, puts it back without a shrug and then looks thoughtfully into the distance.
For Chance, the patients who greet him on a daily basis are little more than manila folders to be passed from one end of the desk to the other. He is strictly a “consulting neuropsychiatrist” — he doesn’t treat patients long-term but rather on an assess-and-refer basis, seeing them for a narrow period before recommending a course of action — and the show opens with a day-in-the-life sketch that elegantly suggests the tribulations of such work. Via voice-over (performed by Laurie with clinical remove), Chance delivers a sampling of the mini-narratives he churns out every afternoon: a “53-year-old right-handed man” who, years after suffering a stroke, swallows a cocktail of household cleaners, or a “42-year-old right-handed woman” who, after being assaulted on the sidewalk, falls victim to drink and homelessness.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson and edited by Nathan Nugent, these vignettes effectively melt together, the images of pain and struggle — the 53-year-old man strapped to a respiratory machine, the 42-year-old woman camped out near a tent — strung together by Chance’s fatigued body language. (Abrahamson and Nugent collaborated on last year’s Room.) Laurie leans on little touches — a twisting of the glasses, a twirling of the tape recorder, an occasional under-the-breath expletive — to communicate both the internal agony of the gig and the lethargy that comes with being a longtime practitioner of it.
Chance might have continued on this path of financially cushy, emotionally manageable toil if circumstances hadn't sent him into the tailspin of a midlife crisis. In the delectably foreboding voice-over that concludes the pilot episode, he turns his objective diagnostic insight on himself: “Of late he is increasingly aware of a mental state he finds to be dark and unstable. He fears he has been drawn to the precipice of some new and terrible reality, and that now, having stumbled, he will be unable to keep from falling.”
Fueling Chance’s state of uncertainty are knotty divorce proceedings (he’s the target of an IRS audit concerning his ex-wife-to-be’s photography business); a sharp-witted daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) anxious about changing schools and her parents’ splitting up (her teachers have discovered marijuana stems in her lunchbox); an ethically murky antiques deal with a local shop-owner (David Simon regular Clarke Peter); and a husky handyman/fixer who goes by “D” (Ethan Suplee).
Above all, there’s Chance’s growing infatuation with a new patient, Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol), who appears to be caught in an abusive marriage with a brash Oakland detective (Paul Adelstein). Chance’s appointment with Jaclyn begins like any other: a standard-procedure back and forth recapping her behavioral and medical history. But in this case his questioning turns up an alternate, potentially destructive persona of hers, “Jackie Black,” who, shunting Jaclyn’s claims of being “separated,” maintains a sexual attraction to the detective husband.
Chance and Jaclyn’s relationship quickly evolves into something grander and more urgent than a one-time consultation, its emotional trajectory helped along by the example of Vertigo — Eldon Chance is yet another well-meaning, gentle-seeming, psychologically disturbed authority figure who falls under the spell of a two-personality blonde on up-and-down Bay Area streets.
But the early scenes between Laurie and Mol — a chance (seriously) encounter in a bookstore, a café visitation after a violent episode — are truly lovely, rare flashes of middle-aged adults just talking, not yet wanting too much or even anything specific from each other. (Mol understandably seems less present a couple episodes later, when Jaclyn, purportedly acting under the influence of “Jackie Black,” falls into Chance’s arms and says, “You’re my knight.”)
Seeing these two intelligent actors feed off each other is a pleasure that supersedes the intermittent errors of embellishment, like the beat that finds the score worriedly swelling up just as Chance leans in and tells Jaclyn, “You just referred to yourself in the third person.” Flubs like these fall away when stacked up against the power of the café scene’s radiant close-ups of Laurie and Mol — both looking practically right into the lens as their characters strive for common ground.
The other paramount figure is D, a brick house–built factotum with a set of skills that would impress Liam Neeson on a grumpy day. Living out of a workshop in the antiques store, he spends his days completing odd-job assignments for customers and passion projects for himself, like the tomahawk blades he refines for buddies serving in Afghanistan. D maintains a fast-food-oriented diet (Big Gulps, burgers) and formulates dimestore-philosophy theories (“There are no victims — only volunteers”) that must sound like music to the ears of over-read, overeducated Chance. Once D satisfies Chance’s antiques task, the psychiatrist recruits him for the more perilous challenge of getting dirt on Jaclyn’s husband. In the fourth and fifth episodes, the show turns into a ludicrously fun following exercise — all fog-shrouded, winding-road shots of Chance and D peeking through dashboards, taking photos, acquiring evidence.
Along the way, Chance sees Laurie shedding the fast-clip cadences and cane-wielding hostility of House for a slower, more gradual approach. At the climax of the show’s fifth episode, as D wanders offscreen on a pivotal nighttime mission, Laurie fascinates even during a chunk of downtime in a sedan. For nearly two full minutes, Chance — his long face clean-shaven and tired-looking — gets to work killing time. He rolls down his window, taps his knees, reads from a book and fiddles with the volume on D’s music. It’s a segment of wonderful ease, the calm before the storm, and with it, and his quiet, unfussy command, Laurie proves one thing: He never needed that cane in the first place.