Over the course of the first five episodes of Amazon’s new spy drama Patriot, intelligence operative John Tavner wrestles a family of Brazilian martial artists who are clad only in their underwear, assaults a little person police officer, steals a group of disabled veterans’ artificial limbs, and tries to fight an enemy agent on a stairwell while carrying a second unconscious man in a backpack.
So, yeah, Patriot (which debuts Friday) is a weird show. And the weirdness is both the best and worst thing about it.
Created by Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Patriot is John LeCarré by way of Wes Anderson, where the quirky humor and self-conscious visual style are the primary reasons to watch, even as they keep undercutting the story being told.
It’s 2012, and after a mission gone terribly awry, John (Australian actor Michael Dorman) is in the midst of a full-fledged nervous breakdown, which has manifested itself as a side career performing folk songs whose lyrics all come, very literally translated, from things that happen in his day job.
“They’re becoming more honest,” explains John’s father Tom (the great Terry O’Quinn), the State Department’s intelligence chief, and thus John’s boss. “Which is probably a good thing for folks singers in general, but not a good thing for someone who works in intelligence.”
When Tom gets word that Iran is about to make a deal to acquire nuclear capability, he reluctantly sends John undercover in an industrial piping company that conducts business in Luxembourg, where the nuke deal is going down. But John’s not equipped at all for his undercover identity — much to the contempt of his fake boss Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith at his most Red Forman-ish) — and barely better these days at the actual spycraft. Even with the help of both his father and his congressman brother Edward (Michael Chernus), it’s a never-ending catastrophe that eventually draws in a local cop (Aliette Opheim), a piping company employee (Chris Conrad) who’s a little too gung-ho to put his gym muscles to work assisting a real man of action, another folk musician (Mark Boone Junior) with only a kayak and some demo CDs to his name, and a former Battleship childhood prodigy.
As absurd black comedy, a lot of this works very well. Each episode features at least one set piece, and usually several, that’s striking in its sly visual humor, and most of the actors give themselves over wholeheartedly to the oddness of it all. Some of the jokes can become too mean, and/or call too much attention to their own quirks — a running gag involving a piping company colleague whom John has to hurt for the sake of his cover qualifies as both — but Patriot‘s most interesting when it’s going for laughs.
The problem is that Conrad also wants to take John’s mission, and the fragile state of his sanity, seriously, and very little of that works, despite a compelling lead performance from the lanky, Joel Kinnaman-esque Dorman. So much time is devoted to the comedy that the only way to keep track of the increasingly-complicated plot is to grind it to a halt for a few minutes so the Tavners can explain it to one another. And the sincerity of John’s character arc (which also involves Kathleen Munroe as his wife, who has grown used to not seeing him for months at a time) keeps being undercut by its presence in a show where nearly everything else appears inside ironic quote marks.
Conrad’s aspiring to something like the Coen brothers at their best, where the tone manages to be both mocking and dramatic at the same time. But that’s a narrow target to hit, as evidenced by the number of movies by the Coens themselves that inspire thinkpieces about whether they have contempt for their own characters. Noah Hawley has kept hitting it with the TV vesion of Fargo, but Patriot never quite gets there. It’s fun in individual moments, but frustrating overall. Like John trying to win a fight against one man while he has the weight of another strapped to his back, it’s working with a handicap that seems more impressive at first than it does the longer it continues.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org