'Chance': TV Review

Chance Hugh LaurieS01 E01Still H 2016
David Moir/Hulu
Stick with it.

Hugh Laurie and an excellent cast combine with a glorious San Francisco setting to make this Hulu drama about a troubled neuropsychiatrist worth a shot, despite several shortcomings.

It's not very often that a show puts up a good and feisty fight against its own shortcomings and manages to punch its way to some level of success.

Hulu's Chance, starring Hugh Laurie, is just that kind of unicorn — not surprisingly with a great deal of thanks to Laurie for snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. He's not the only reason Chance doesn't topple when it teeters, but he's the biggest reason.

If you haven't noticed, Laurie's an exceptionally talented actor.

Having watched half of the 10 first-season episodes (the number Hulu made available for review; a second season has already been renewed), I think Chance stacks up more pluses than minuses and becomes, in the process, a show worth the investment even when it's uneven. Most shows with unreached potential just continue to implode, turning hope to disappointment. But Chance benefits from Laurie; a strong ensemble cast (Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Paul Adelstein, Lisa Gay Hamilton); and the rare gift of being fully — and beautifully — shot in San Francisco by Academy Award nominee Lenny Abrahamson (Room), who not only brings out the feel of distinctive neighborhoods with non-cliched shots (nothing from Fisherman's Wharf, and the first bridge shot is the Bay Bridge, with its wondrous lights) of that majestic city, but also relies on his location people to make the show feel as true to San Francisco as any film or TV series in ages.

But of course television is mainly a writer's medium, and Chance is based on the book by Kem Nunn (Sons of Anarchy, John From Cincinnati), who also is an executive producer and writer here. He's joined in the writing by Alexandra Cunningham (Aquarius, Desperate Housewives), who also is the showrunner.

Unfortunately, it's the writing — and overly familiar premise — that gets Chance into the trouble that it has to dig itself out of.

Laurie plays San Francisco-based neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance, who, as an expert in a complicated and intriguing field of mental health, presides over a number of cases where very awful (and often rare) mental conditions end either in death or dreary, lifeless misery.

As Dr. Chance recites cases into a microphone (as the patients and their fates are depicted onscreen), it becomes pretty clear that his job is a taxing one: evaluating patients and sending them on paths without happy destinations. It's taking a toll on him, because he wants to help and is seeking new and innovative ways to do just that. Regardless, it's making him a little mental. An ugly divorce from wife Christina (Diane Farr) isn't helping.

Chance also tries to add in an element of financial anxiety: The protagonist is broke, which leads to him make his first morally dubious decision — to gussy up, with the help of his antiques dealer, some of the beloved pieces he needs to sell off. The result is that they quadruple in value, with the help of an enigmatic and clearly dangerous employee at the antique store who only goes by the name D (Suplee). You know immediately that this moral lapse will lead to bigger ones. Unfortunately for anyone who actually lives in the Bay Area, the notion that Chance and his soon-to-be ex-wife couldn't sell their place in under five minutes (even with the damage to the walls inflicted by Christina's much younger trainer-boyfriend) is ridiculous. Even with the taxes and debt written into the plot, his house could be worth $2 million in this market (but never mind that dose of reality).

Nunn has true believers and rabid fans of his work, but it's probably fair to say that distilling his ideas into a TV series is harder than it looks. There are big ideas in Chance, and something oddly beautiful about a doctor who desperately wants to help people but who is in a field where it's almost always too late by the time patients finally get to him.

Laurie is great when the writing is great. Laurie is great when the writing falters. It's a textbook example of an actor rescuing material when it is so often the other way around.

Where Chance suffers qualitatively is in its premise. The troubled doctor runs into Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol), the abused wife (now separated) of an Oakland Police Department homicide detective, Raymond (Adelstein). (Again, Chance gets its Bay Area stuff down — Berkeley, Oakland, etc. — with aplomb, which is very rare).

Jaclyn has been beaten so badly by Raymond that she's developed a split personality as "Jackie," who's sexually bold and impulsive and wants to stay with Raymond. Poor Chance is exposed to Jaclyn's predicament and wiles in mostly unbelievable ways— her therapist, Suzanne (Hamilton), asks him to check in on Jacyln at the hospital, even though he only saw her briefly before referring her to Suzanne. The hospital visit is a stretch — almost as big as a smart doctor willing to get into an antiques bilking scheme. So, too, is the notion that Chance, so tired of not being able to save anyone, sees an opportunity to help Jaclyn — who just happens to be beautiful, who just happens to be flirty and vulnerable and who just happens to have a super dangerous boyfriend who makes it clear immediately that nobody should be tampering with his wife. It's the ultimate "Don't do that." It's such a clear crossing of a line that Chance almost never recovers from it. Luckily, Laurie goes a long way toward making you believe his character's deep need to help someone, finally, when the opportunity is there.

Because it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief for viewers to buy that someone as accomplished as Chance would ever be foolish enough to cross that line, we get a snippet of a flashback showing that way back when he was in med school, Chance became infatuated with a patient and drove himself nearly mad trying to "save" her.

OK, so he's got a stalker past with a savior complex. That seems, for a drama aiming to be subtle in other areas, like a real boulder.

It's also pretty obvious that Jaclyn is unreliable, perhaps a con, and that this "Jackie" personality is awfully convenient. If the audience can sense that something's not quite right, why can't Dr. Chance? But here's how Chance redeems much of these nagging issues: It winks at the Raymond Chandler noir of it all — of dangerous dames leading good but desperate men to indulge in the the sinful impulses they keep tamped down inside them, setting them up as dupes to do bad things. Also, Chance references the big leap it's asking viewers to take — as the haggard doctor wonders if maybe he's got a tumor or something, like the patients he sees, so rare and debilitating that it has robbed his brain of functionality. "Ethically speaking, this is not who I am," he says to D at one point.

So Chance gets a brain scan. It's clean. A tumor would have been better, he muses. "Abnormal psychology," Chance notes to the doctor reading the scan. "The choices I'm making are mine."

Yes, they are. And they are bad ones. But at least he knows it. And now the audience knows that he knows it, so Nunn and the writers have at least almost-deftly addressed the shortcomings of the plot. 

And holy hell is Suplee, as D, a real revelation. Audiences have seen him in comedies (specifically My Name Is Earl as the dumb brother), but here he's all bald-headed, riddle-talking rage, fueled by his elite training in the military. Does he go from dangerous loner to cliché-spouting red flag in one episode? Yes, he most emphatically does. But by the next episode the writing has tempered him, made him more nuanced and thus even more dangerous. Just another example of the writing on Chance going off the rails but the acting keeping it rolling.

Once you buy that Dr. Chance is a smart man making very dumb decisions — and once some of those decisions are smartly explained — Chance gets its redemption. And at every dip in the writing there is a rise from the intuitive brilliance of Laurie's performance, or that of Suplee or someone else in the cast. When a hint of hokey creeps in, there are long, beautiful shots of foggy, menacing San Francisco or vantage points where locals hang. In those moments, the show redeems itself, finds its fascination elsewhere and survives.

Chance is erratic and sometimes frustrating. But it battles hard to win back approval. And overall the glitches are outweighed by the finer creative points. Who knows how the first season will unfold, but Chance fights hard to at least be given a chance, and that's a rarity these days.

Cast: Hugh Laurie, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Paul Adelstein, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Diane Farr
by: Kem Nunn, Alexandra Cunningham
by: Lenny Abrahamson
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine