Hugh Laurie is back. After eight seasons carrying the hit network drama House, Laurie did little of great consequence. Understandably. He did do a brief, exquisite turn on Veep for a bunch of episodes, which only reminded viewers how formidably compelling he is as a reprobate.
Encountering Laurie at Fox network events during the final seasons of House was an unnerving experience. He did turn up, being a pro. But he didn't particularly want to talk. He arrived the moment the event started, stayed the minimum possible length of time and skedaddled. He had the air of a man who wanted out of American TV and all attendant, annoying niceties.
Chance (starts Sunday, Bravo, 10 p.m. ET) features Laurie as the title character. He's carrying a series again. This one was made for Hulu. (It follows The Handmaid's Tale, another Hulu production, on Bravo here on Sunday and the double-bill underlines how Hulu is making a strong claim for starkly original content.) It could be described as "noir" and that would be true, but not an accurate description of its explicit darkness.
Based on a novel by Kem Nunn, who specializes in "California noir" and who wrote for HBO's Deadwood and FX's Sons of Anarchy, Chance is deeply steeped in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. But here there's a twist: Chandler's private-eye Philip Marlowe got into a pile of trouble because he was conned by beautiful dames who walked into his office. What ensued was less about crime and detection and more about human venality. In Chance, the surface story of crime detection is replaced by the surface neuropsychiatry. Otherwise, it's all about dark venality, and male ego.
In Chance, Laurie plays a doctor, Eldon Chance, a neuropsychiatrist in San Francisco who sees patients for evaluation and then moves them along for more in-depth treatment elsewhere. He's a troubled man. First, he seems frustrated by the cursory work he does. Also, he's going through a divorce, has a teenage daughter, and has major money troubles.
In the opening episode, a beautiful dame, Jaclyn (Gretchen Mol), walks into his office with a tale to tell. She's a mess, she says, because her husband, a homicide detective, has been physically abusing her and, as a result, she's developed a multiple-personality disorder. Chance's life is about to go way off the rails because, you know, there's something about this woman that intrigues him, personally and professionally.
Chance diagnoses his own mental state as "dark and unstable" and he's right. In the slow-burning drama that ensues, he will linger too long in dark alleys and say too much about his angry feelings to dangerous men. For a start, he explains his anger about Jaclyn's abusive husband to a guy simply named D (Ethan Suplee). So D shows the neuropsychiatrist how abusive jerks are handled in the real world. He literally takes the doctor to a tough part of town – San Francisco looks stunning, by the way, but it's not a touristy San Francisco – and beats up three guys, just to audition for the job of dealing with that jerk of a detective.
The doctor is, inevitably, advised to let go of the Jaclyn case. After all, her previous therapist ended up dead. But he can't. He's a 55-year-old man with profound regrets and, for all that he knows about the human mind, he wants to know more about its darkest side. And he wants to know if he can go there.
This is a series with a number of flaws. It broods too long and with too much indulgence on another sullen, clever middle-aged man, another male anti-hero sinking into a morally dubious situation. If you're not familiar with Chandler or other examples of Hollywood noir, it might seem absurdly fraught with a staged kind of menace. Even if you are familiar with the genre, Mol can seem too obviously signalling that this dame Jaclyn is a seriously unreliable siren tempting the troubled doctor away from his messy life and into one hell of a mess.
And yet it works, mainly because everyone involved, but Laurie in particular, is perfectly attuned to the rhythm of it – the slow sizzle of its combustible story as one man, too complicated to be both caring and unselfish, begins the spiral downward to terrible violence. The scenes in which Chance encounters Jaclyn's husband, Ray (Paul Adelstein), are beautifully textured segments filled with tense, attempted male intimidation of another male.
"I spend my days with those mutilated by life," Chance says at one point, trying to explain his day job. But it comes out as a boast. The series is, like its main character, dark, twisted, maddening and utterly gripping if your taste runs to high-concept noir drenched in highfalutin anxiety. Certainly, Hugh Laurie likes the taste of the material and is clearly savouring it.