Hugh Laurie tries to go full Hitchcock in Hulu's new thriller
On Boardwalk Empire, Gretchen Mol gave maybe the single most underrated TV performance of the last decade, shading her matriarchal femme fatale with layers of poignant innocence and world-weary experience. That show was an addictive blood ballet that barely had a soul, but Mol gave it a crazy heart. On House, Hugh Laurie gave unquestionably the single most imitated TV performance of the new millennium. He defined a new kind of brainy-smarmy scientific investigator: He talked like a nerd, swaggered like a jock, and made medical babble sound angrily sexy. Now Laurie and Mol are at the center of Chance, Hulu’s new binge-friendly suspense thriller. Laurie is Eldon Chance, a forensics neuropsychiatrist in San Francisco who is struggling through an expensive divorce. Mol is Jaclyn Blackstone, a battered housewife battling a ravenously sexual dual personality named Jackie Black. Eldon falls for her. What a sap. Hasn’t he seen Vertigo? When a blond woman in San Francisco has two personalities, you probably shouldn’t trust either one.
Chance is based on the novel by Kem Nunn, a high practitioner of modern California weirdo noir. Nunn’s a novelist by trade, but he’s made a fine side career on the small screen: He worked with David Milch on writing Deadwood and John From Cincinnati and spent two years writing and producing on Sons of Anarchy. Nunn co-created this new show with Alexandra Cunningham, a TV lifer who developed the U.S. remake of Prime Suspect after spending most of the 2000s writing Desperate Housewives. And if you put every show I just mentioned in a blender and added a pinch of Antiques Roadshow, you might get something like Chance, which flirts with procedural investigation, florid soap opera, dreamy philosophical statements about the Banach-Tarski paradox, and a running subplot about furniture fraud.
Hulu seems to encourage experimentation in its original programming. (Casual started as an internet-age rom-com and became a thrillingly bleak dark comedy of psychological dysfunction.) Chance has been greenlit for two 10-episode seasons, so I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the meandering first few episodes. The supporting cast helps. As a fellow shrink, Lisa Gay Hamilton is a fine foil for the increasingly unhinged protagonist, the suspicious Barbara Bel Geddes to Laurie’s Jimmy Stewart. As Jaclyn’s mysterious husband, Paul Adelstein gives a clever performance, half congenial and half murderous. And then there’s Ethan Suplee as D, a straight-faced monster-man who speaks softly but carries a tomahawk.
These are fun characters. Right now, the show mostly uses them as ornaments around Laurie, playing a character who is decidedly un-House. Eldon is a thoughtful, recessive, and mostly passive protagonist — and so the early episodes suffer from a lack of momentum. It’s boring, but there are flashes of suspenseful brilliance. The filmmaking goes impressionistically French New Wave when Eldon and Jaclyn are together, all jump cuts and shuffled dialogue. There’s a revelation in episode 3 that adds a new shade to Laurie’s paranoid performance. And Mol brings humanity to what could’ve been Hitchcock pastiche. You’re pretty sure Jaclyn is lying — but you want to know why. The whole show is tantalizing like that. I’m hooked on Chance, but only because I want to know why I’m hooked on Chance. B