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Review: Chance: Season One

The deeper that Chance delves into psychosis, the harder it is for audiences to pull away.

Chance: Season One
Photo: Hulu

Hugh Laurie’s House character was marked by a profound lack of change. In Chance, the actor also plays a doctor, but Eldon Chance does almost nothing but change. The only question, highlighted by Chance’s role as a consulting neuropsychiatrist, is whether that change is a conscious one or the result of one of the many mental disorders highlighted in each episode.

The first and arguably most important of those ailments is the dissociative identity that Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol) claims is the reason she keeps recklessly returning to her abusive ex-husband, Raymond (Paul Adelstein), whom she alleges is a corrupt homicide detective. Chance doesn’t believe in entirely distinct second personalities, but Jaclyn’s wounds are real, and his instant attraction to her overrides his suspicions. Perhaps he’s drawn to the resiliency she shows in trying to escape Raymond’s orbit, given that Chance is working his way through a personally amicable but financially messy divorce with Christina (Diane Farr), or maybe it’s a relapse of his erotomania, a syndrome that convinces him that Jaclyn is in love with him. Grounding his subsequent actions in such plausible terms helps to mask the show’s true motivations: Chance is a psychological noir, and Jaclyn is its femme fatale.

Chance maintains that he’s “a medical professional, not some Raymond Chandler character,” and yet he remains fixated on saving Jaclyn, even after he’s fulfilled his ethical obligations by referring her to a trusted colleague. This obsession leads him to descend from the bright streets of San Francisco and the cheery office run by his secretary, Lucy (Greta Lee), into shady backrooms around the city, like the workshop run by Carl (Clarke Peters), a high-end antique dealer who illegally modifies furniture for higher prices. There, Chance meets D (Ethan Suplee), an ex-military jack of all trades who gets off on shutting down bullies, and before long, he’s venturing into the seedy darkness of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, learning firsthand that “In the real world, you can’t defend—you must attack.”

Though Chance doesn’t make it explicit in the first half of the season, D’s interactions with Chance bring Fight Club to mind, especially once Chance starts assertively quoting D’s advice verbatim. There are intimations of Breaking Bad, too, when Chance warns his daughter’s baffled principal that he’s now “the feeder,” the person who takes action—or, as Walter White would put it, “the one who knocks.” What separates Chance from being too familiar a character study, however, is that Chance is aware of his own condition.

Each episode of the show briefly follows at least one of Chance’s patients, providing concrete examples of their neurological ailments in action. In turn, these cases prompt Chance to re-examine whether his own changing personality might be externally influenced: Is a head injury to blame for Chance’s increasingly risky and immoral behaviors? Is a brain tumor the reason why he’s so freely putting his wealth and safety on the line for a potentially manipulative woman who nonetheless makes him feel valued? The formula so closely resembles the self-reflective nature of House (or, more broadly, Six Feet Under) that it’s a relief when the writers jokingly have Chance explain that he doesn’t self-medicate for pain as it leads to poor results.

Unfortunately, this self-diagnostic approach means that Chance sometimes ends up moving at a glacial pace. This sort of art-house television, in which action and plot take a back seat to philosophical conversations, works better in a show like Mr. Robot, which splits its focus across a series of characters. By contrast, Chance remains fixated on a single point of view, a choice that’s compounded by depicting Chance as a largely passive personality.

Throughout the show, the audience’s gratification is perpetually delayed: When Raymond catches Chance tailing him, days pass before Chance receives a retaliatory beat-down and warning. Though someone is definitely, actively working to threaten Chance, after his daughter, Nicole (Stefania LaVie Owen), goes briefly missing, it’s hard to get as shaken up by the child porn someone places on his computer. As talented an actor as Laurie is, there are only so many ways for him to express suspicion and paranoia, and only so much the audience can do with secondhand information about things occurring off screen, like the harassment received by Suzanne (LisaGay Hamilton), the therapist to whom Chance sends Jaclyn.

Chance, however, takes its title from its focal character, and not from coincidence; creators Alexandra Cunningham (who lit slow fuses on Desperate Housewives) and Kem Nunn (who played a similar long game on John from Cincinnati) have crafted a tersely cerebral drama in which not a single frame feels unintentionally out of place. In fact, the directors will often abruptly flashback to an image from an earlier scene, either calling out something once subtly hidden in the background or to emphasize a pivotal moment with new context. As D puts it to Chance, “The more you know, the more you’re in,” and this goes double for the audience. The deeper Chance delves into psychosis, the harder it is to pull away.

Cast: Hugh Laurie, Sal Lopez, Joe Metheny, Thomas W. Stewart, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Paul Adelstein, Diane Farr, Stefania LaVie Owen, Clarke Peters, LisaGay Hamilton, Greta Lee, Brett Zimmerman Network: Hulu Buy: Amazon

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