In Which Kem Nunn Did Not Get Along With His Shrink

Four People


creators Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham

“God is an American,” it must have occurred to Hugh Laurie at some point. He has spent much of the second half of his career with the best American accent he can muster. There were American men who talked the way that Hugh Laurie does to his wife and she to him; in the 18th century, they lived in mansions in Virginia and were at home in the country. While he filmed House he spent most of the year away from his wife and kids, and of course on the show, where he portrayed a perpetually cranky doctor, he did not have either.

Laurie is deeply acquainted with the subject of depression as well. Despite the fact that he is a semi-capable neuropsychiatrist, whatever that is, Dr. Eldon Chance is suffering from this familiar phenomenon. It began shortly before the divorce with his wife, Carla, initiated when she began fucking her personal trainer. Carla (the hard-to-look-at Diane Farr) has one main complaint about her soon-to-be ex-husband. He is not decisive enough – he doesn’t make things happen, he simply receives them when they do.

Chance seems to take this characterization as a personal challenge. Novelist Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source) used Chance to fold a book-length indictment of the institution of psychiatry into a noirish murder mystery. Nunn never says so directly, but he hates shrinks. He finds them lacking from every conceivable angle, and the man he loathes the most in the genre is Dr. Freud. The only thing he believes Freud is any good at is writing – identifying psychiatric treatment with what he does, bullshit, is the most backhanded compliment Nunn can pay to this troubled profession.

Dr. Chance does not really treat patients often. His position in the medical firmament is that of a diagnostician, and the reason he seeks this role is because he is frequently alarmed by the intensity of the empathy he feels for others. This experience scares him again and again, giving him insight into himself. We thus see therapy as an act that exists mainly for the person perpetrating the dialogue. In addition, it is key for the economic sustenance of therapist, and thus this arrangement can never be wholly positive no matter how genuine the concern on the part of the practitioner. There is always poison in the drink.

Chance refers Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol) to a psychiatrist better equipped to deal with her multiple-personality disorder, Dr. Suzanne Silver (LisaGay Hamilton). The two discuss their patient in extensive scenes which allow Nunn to display how self-involved and ill-equipped they are to treat this woman. Therapy, Nunn argues, is like groping around in the dark for another person and finding only a mirror when you flick the light on. Dr. Silver is most upset about how long she had to wait for her lunch.

Once he begins fucking his patient, Dr. Chance is still referring to the literature, caught up in his shifting view of a person about whom he never really cares enough to get to know. “Freud had famously said that he had come to regard any sexual act as one involving at least four people,” Nunn has Dr. Chance think in the novel. “Chance had no idea how many of them were there in the room, coming and going at all hours of day and night, but between the two of them it was how it had been with the madman among the tombs, that their number was legion.” The analysis itself is the only guide a lost soul has available to him.

Despite its San Francisco setting, the environments that surround Dr. Chance never really play a huge part in the novel. Nunn’s collaborator Alexandra Cunningham and director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) have made a point of indicting San Francisco as well. The separation between the haves and have not could not be more apparent. Chance uses a homosexual black man (Clarke Peters) to sell his furniture, and befriends the man’s in-house carpenter, Darius (the brilliant Ethan Suplee). Like any tourist who stays too long, he does not know anything about such types, and endeavors to learn.

In the character of Darius, Nunn manifests his most appealing creation – a self-proclaimed veteran capable of inflicting violence on everyone but Chance himself. Laurie makes a point of not appearing too physically frail, in contrast to his most famous role, but he struggles to compete with Darius and the litany of more present people that fill the rest of the narrative: his troubled patient (a harried-looking Mol), her mysterious husband (Paul Adelstein), and his troubled daughter (Stefania Owen).

Like much of Nunn’s work, Chance seems to operate with its own set of moral strictures and bears little resemblance to the contemporary world or current events. This gives the series a certain timeless feeling, and many times it channels the never-ending atmosphere of another noir, Vertigo, with which it shares a city and many themes. If we really believe what we are seeing, we risk incriminating ourselves. Thus it is only possible to watch Chance in a detached way, to hope that we are not as these people are.

There is no cinematic mood more difficult to sustain than menace. At times Chance seems to thrive on this not-knowing, fearful state, but it is much more achievable in the short running time of a feature. Stretching out this sensation into multiple seasons is just that: a stretch. We cannot possibly identify with a group of people who only see themselves as victims or perpetrators, and the uneasy feeling never coalesces into an understanding that could make either side any kind of a victor.

By the end of Chance we have not found anyone we really like. As Nunn puts it, there are feeders and receivers, and the world is full of the latter, perhaps completely full. This meaningless binary is even sadder if it might, in some respects, be true.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


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