It’s a highly stylized exercise in neo-noir, redolent of “Vertigo,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Maltese Falcon,” from the foggy credits forward.
“Chance,” which began streaming this week on Hulu, stars Hugh Laurie as Dr. Eldon Chance, a “forensic neuropsychiatrist” — it’s a real thing — whose life, already something of a mess, goes completely to pieces when a Hitchcock blonde appears at his door. Yes, of all the forensic neuropsychiatric offices in all the towns in the world — the town here is San Francisco — she walks into his.
Adapted by Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham (“Aquarius”) from Nunn’s 2014 novel of the same name, with a pilot directed by Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”), it’s a highly stylized, somewhat fidgety exercise in neo-noir, redolent of “Vertigo,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Maltese Falcon,” from the foggy credits forward.
Dissonant strings, pensive piano figures and slabs of electrified noise underscore sub-Godard mismatching of sound and picture. A flashback begins with the words, “I didn’t know he was violent — not until that day in Marin … .”
Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol), a “39-year-old ambidextrous woman living in Berkeley,” is the subject at hand, the familiar femme fatale — or is she? — who arrives draped in helplessness. She has been having blackouts; from what she can gather, a second personality, Jackie Black, seems to emerge in this space. There is also a husband (Paul Adelstein), an Oakland police detective Jaclyn would like to get away from but Jackie seems to like.
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Conveniently, Chance, who is going through a divorce, is ripe for involvement and corruption and confusion. (“Impulsivity, disinhibition, risk-taking euphoria, calamity,” is his eventual self-diagnosis.) And even as Jaclyn is disturbing his thoughts, he finds his way, through financial need, into a dangerous relationship with a less-than-scrupulous antiques dealer (Clarke Peters) and his right hand, a man-mountain called D (Ethan Suplee), who himself has a certain need for trouble.
There is a fatefulness to noir stories, in the collective circumstances that lead the hero to his doom, the innumerable antecedents necessary to create an accident. Staying just this side of meta-fictional self-consciousness, characters continually comment on issues of chance and choice, coincidence and what just looks like coincidence.
Says D: “There are no victims, only volunteers.” Says Suzanne (LisaGay Hamilton), Chance’s colleague and Jiminy Cricket: “You’re not the victim here. You had a choice at every turn and now you’re suffering the consequences.” Chance to lab guy: “The choices I’m making are mine.” Lab guy: “So cut it out then, make different choices.” This is the kind of good advice that people in stories never take, of course, which is what gives us stories.
Much of it takes place in the dark, in a city leached of all cheery normality, abandoned to Market Street homeless and Tenderloin thugs. (No roving hordes of tech workers, though.) There is little in the way of humor. What relief there is comes from supporting characters, like Chance’s office manager, Lucy (Greta Lee), who let in a little fresh air from the normal world offstage.
The performances are enjoyable. Suplee brings an odd sweetness to a character who snacks on violence but is in most ways the most centered person here. The sort of versatile actress you discover anew each time she appears, and then remember all the earlier times you also thought she was great, Mol keeps you unsure of Jaclyn’s honesty or motives while also keeping her sympathetic. And though Laurie is forced to wrestle now and again with an ungainly chunk of dialogue (“This striking through, this freeing of the caged heart”) or heavily dropped literary reference, he makes a fine everyman in over his head.
There is almost no building of tension, because the tension is there from the start and rarely takes a breather. The smallest gesture seems potentially fatal.
When Dr. Chance attends a conference where he is to deliver a paper, you know that it’s just an opportunity for something to go bad. (Indeed, the assumption is that things will go bad; the hope is that they might not.) Some will find the atmosphere stifling — others, a sauna.
That a second season, not adapted from the book, has already been ordered might provide clues to where the first is headed. Or it might not!