Photo: Elizabeth Morris/Amazon
Who is the audience for Patriot? I’m not sure, but the mere fact that this Amazon series makes me ask that question counts as praise in my book.
I could tell you it’s a spy thriller about a handsome intelligence officer named John Tavner (Michael Dornan) who tries to blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions by going undercover in an industrial piping firm and executing a series of odd, risky tasks. But that description would be misleading. The show offers a fair amount of violence, subterfuge, and sneaking around, but espionage in the vein of James Bond or John le Carré or even The Americans is ultimately pretty far from its mind. Created and mostly directed and written by Steve Conrad (writer of the recent Ben Stiller version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), it’s less an action drama than a droll, often gleefully random comedy about deception, family, and the complexity of the human personality. It sets a distinct narrative path for itself but then departs from it early and often.
Over time the digressions don’t just subsume the show’s main plot, they become the main source of its specialness. I doubt I could explain the spy plot in the first four episodes of this series even if a family member’s life depended on my answer, but this is a rare case where I don’t consider that a demerit. Conrad and co-executive producer Gil Bellows (a former regular on Ally McBeal and The Agency who plays a small role here) seem to be in it mainly for the shimmering images, the counterintuitively edited and scored action sequences, and the peculiar yet believable character details, such as the way Tavner’s co-worker tries to convince Tavner to let him tag along on a mission by taking off his shirt to show how ripped he is, and the strangely belligerent confidence with which Tavner’s boss, Leslie Carat (Kurtwood Smith), spits out monologues about the industrial piping business (“Let me walk you through the Donnelly nut spacing and crack system rim-riding rip configuration”).
You don’t so much watch Patriot as people-watch it. Aliette Opheim shows up a few episodes in as a detective from Luxembourg who looks like a glamorous French movie star but soon reveals herself as a kook passing for a badass (she settles a challenge to her authority with a game of rock-paper-scissors). Michael Chernus lends his puppy-dog doofus charm to the role of Tavner’s brother, Edward, a young congressman who takes a job as an attaché mainly, it seems, so that he tell everyone he meets that he’s an attaché then offer to show them his official attaché badge, which wasn’t a thing until he asked if he could create one. The Tavners’ father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), is the State Department intelligence chief and John’s boss. When he discusses the family business with both of his sons, he’s so laid back that he might as well be the proprietor of a pancake restaurant or used-car dealership.
John, whom we meet in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, is a lost soul, but with the appalled edge of a Mike Judge hero. He’s soulful but not nice, and although other characters are fooled into thinking he’s a regular guy, the viewer can tell from one look at his eyes that he’s miserable. He always seems slightly constipated, and even though he has a matinee idol’s shoulders and jawline, he’s as much of an oddball sidekick-type as the supporting players that orbit him. John even records folk music under an assumed name: exposition dumps about his missions, set to strummy-strummy guitar. (“The songs, they’re pretty good,” Tom says, then adds: “Well, I’m his dad, so maybe I’m biased.”)
John and Tom have a guitar duet together in the pilot, and I was so charmed by how good they were together that I had to remind myself that their business is state-sanctioned mayhem. The show treats this core aspect of its world as a given, but never sweeps it under the rug. The incongruity of a brute who takes part in open-mic nights, a State Department bigwig who joins him in guitar duets, and a congressman who wears a Licensed to Ill–era Beastie Boys tour top and sweats, all dovetail nicely with the brutal but inept violence. If you met any of these people at a bus stop and ended up talking to them, you’d think they were fairly well-adjusted, and odd in the way that nearly everyone is odd when you get to know them. And then you might notice the blood on their shirts.
There are moments where the mix of lyrical imagery, emotionally anesthetized characters, and dreamy guitar-driven pop evokes Hal Ashby (The Landlord, Harold and Maude). There are other moments where these same elements push too hard, and the result plays like an Apple ad that’s trying to separate urban professionals from their disposable income. But then Patriot will give you a slow-motion sequence of two out-of-shape, middle-aged men playing squash, or a scene where a folk musician played by Mark Boone Junior tries to sell a man a kayak with a hole in it, and all will be forgiven. You may not find a single line or frame of this show funny, but I smiled the whole time I wrote about it. Which of course means the audience for this is me.