“Quirky” is a word crafted by the gods of journalism as a crutch for critics when writing about things so offbeat they flummox our powers of description. I’m going to try to avoid the term with this review of Amazon’s latest offering, Patriot, a strikingly original dramedy that deserves an inspired response devoid of clichés. Created by Steven Conrad (his screenplays include The Pursuit of Happyness and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), this darkly comic serial is a loony depiction of American identity crisis presented in the form of a spy caper story that’s decidedly… uh… aw, screw it. It’s quirky, okay? It’s also not completely successful at what it’s trying to do, but I dig it, anyway, and if you give it some grace, I think you will, too.
Australian actor Michael Dorman plays John Tavner, a scruffy-sexy secret agent who executes wetwork and other black ops for his boss and father Tom (Terry O’Quinn), a State Department official. International espionage is the family business: John’s older brother Edward (Michael Chernus), a Texas congressman who sits on an intelligence oversight committee, provides assistance as needed. The Tavners are a tight-knit clique, and one of the lovely ironies of Patriot is how they’re clearly most alive when they’re kicking it at the family homestead, drinking beers and strumming guitars and enjoying each other’s company, not chasing high adventure subverting foreign countries. John is not a well man. Apparently, he has a tendency to lose himself in the quagmire and extremes of his work, and as Patriot opens, he’s suffering from PTSD and taking a protracted mental health break in Europe, leaving his wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), worried and lonely back in the states. Dad — a widower married to his work — is more okay with this than he should be, but he is slightly unnerved by his son’s practice of unburdening himself via rambling, much-too confessional folk music, one of the show’s funniest, most sure-fire gags.
Eventually, John is yanked from his mournful idyll and tasked with disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a job that requires getting a large bag of cash into the hands of a contact in Luxembourg. First, though, John must establish a non-official cover by landing a position at Milwaukee-based McMillan Industrial Piping, a dull enterprise with a retrograde boys’ club culture. It’s some kind of big deal to be a “McMillan Man,” excellent at selling pipe, schmoozing hard, and shooting considerable quantities of duck on corporate team-building outings. Gil Bellows (also an executive producer) floats in and out as a slick and sleazy top exec, while Kurtwood Smith, in a fine turn, plays John’s persnickety, suspicious supervisor with a past he’s trying to overcome. Chris Conrad provides very funny support as a very square, excitement-starved junior exec and hard-bodied fitness nut who becomes privy to John’s secrets and scampers after him hoping to help.
When John blows the interview, he takes drastic measures to secure his position in the company by throwing a rival candidate under a bus. I don’t mean this figuratively: John literally shoves poor Stephen Tchoo (Marcus Toji) in front of a moving vehicle, leaving him with a spotty memory and bizarre impairments. McMillan hires Stephen, anyway, hoping he’ll get his wits back, as John immediately proves himself to be terrible at selling industrial piping. Stephen’s disability, then, provides Patriot with one of several ticking clocks on John’s cover, not to mention a source of queasy yet undeniably funny laughs.
Once in Luxembourg, John’s bid to deliver the money goes comedy-of-errors awry (a gang of Brazilians in track suits who do Judo play a role), and the story of the first five episodes — and possibly the entire season — is about dealing with an evolving, ever-complicating set of consequences and trying to get the operation back on track. Swedish actress Aliette Opheim plays an intrepid Luxembourg detective investigating a murder linked to John’s miscues, providing one more threat to his mission. Another wrinkle: Mark Boone Junior as a burly, rumpled folk singer who has unresolved bromantic history with John. He also has a kayak that he’d very much like to sell you, if you’re interested.
Patriot plays like an alt-com ’90s indie flick version of a ’70s genre programmer, or some lost early film from Wes Anderson. It certainly doesn’t entertain like a typical spy thriller. Conrad’s wry, observational aesthetic — deliberate, detached, long, static shots and slow-motion tracking shots — compliments the moodiness and peculiarities and disorientation of Patriot’s alienated anti-hero. He delights in language, turning the technical jargon of industrial piping into hilarious, deadpan jabberwocky, or nutty tangents about cartoons. He enjoys protracted absurdity; one episode finds John forced to haul another man crammed into a duffel bag on his back for an extended period of time, a scenario that produces some hysterical physical comedy and sight gags even as it feels stretched to tediousness. The languid vibe — and perhaps the length of the season — works against a story that wants to ratchet the tension and comedy with mounting complications. When it’s all said and done, 10 episodes might be three or four episodes too much for the story Conrad is telling.
And yet the storytelling in the first five installments stays lively and intriguing. New characters keep expanding and complicating the story, infusing it with new energy. Some, like Boone’s musician, are introduced randomly and nurtured elliptically in random bits and bobs of scenes over a period of episodes, before revealing their significance and sticking around to play out their role. Some characters get lost along the way. Opheim’s cop blazes into the story, sharp and glam, then loses some steam (a peek at the loglines for the show’s final episodes would seem to suggest she factors significantly in the season’s endgame). The characters on the homefront suffer most. The most Alice gets to do in the first five episodes is ask Tom if she can go visit John in Milwaukee. Terry O’Quinn is underutilized. But then, being a Lost-ie, I’m not sure any show can possibly have enough Terry O’Quinn, IMHO.
Still, Alice and Tom — and their abiding care for John — are essential to the warmth that saves Patriot from being too chilly and points to its true stakes, the preservation and flourishing of John’s humanity. Their distance from him — and the family’s fragmentation in general — feeds the meaning of a story about how the demands of maintaining and sustaining the American industrial complex keep individuals spiritually divided and divorced from sources of fulfillment (relationships, art, virtuous work). In Patriot, the juxtaposition of John’s spy missions and McMillan labors are mined for comedy and meaning. The cutthroat work of selling and laying pipe is just as soul-killing as the cutthroat work of protecting American interests abroad, and often just as mundane. The business trips? Just murder on a family.
Dorman excels at everything asked of him, from the various tones of comedy to melancholy existential angst that has the precise amount of heavy, no more. He can go from dead-inside spook one moment, woke revenant in the next. There’s a scene at midseason where John nearly blows his own cover when he encounters a dear friend from his past in the midst of a tense moment where his cover is at risk, but he can’t help but light up with a genuine affection for the guy. Dorman keeps you invested in John’s survival and well-being even as Patriot’s style tests your patience. I hope the final five episodes can deliver on the promise of the first five and close the season on a strong note: I’d love to see Conrad and company get another season to push and refine their weird and winsome brand of “quirky.” B+
Patriot is now streaming on Amazon.