Amazon has a streaming service called Prime Video or Amazon Prime Video or Amazon Prime or whatever they’re calling it now. I don’t know if you know that. How else would you know that? Unless you read your monthly bank statement that says they took money from you if you ever bought a subscription to them. On the one hand, Amazon is wonderful for purchasing products of all kinds. On the other, they really gotta do some work in promoting their streaming service because it has some great content. It was just blind luck that I came across Patriot, a brilliantly surreal and hilarious spy comedy from Steven Conrad, the writer of the Will Smith drama The Pursuit of Happyness (probably the furthest removed from his style), the similarly surreal Nicolas Cage dramedy The Weather Man, and the just as surreal John C. Reilly/Seann William Scott buddy dramedy, The Promotion. Even though I liked those aforementioned movies, I didn’t know what to expect as the trailer didn’t exactly grab me. Neither did the trailers for their other shows. I just wanted to try some Amazon programming and this was the one that seemed relatively interesting to me. What the show accomplishes by the end should make it a must see for people wanting something weirder and more out there in their TV choices.
Patriot stars Michael Dorman as John Tavner, a U.S. intelligence officer living in Amsterdam smoking weed and singing folk songs about his past experiences as an officer. Concerned that Iran will become nuclear, John’s father and handler, Tom, has a new mission for his son. He recruits John to deliver money to Luxembourg to influence the election so that a certain candidate who would make Iran nuclear doesn’t win. John is then given a non-official cover in Milwaukee as John Lakeman, an employee at a piping company called McMillan. McMillan goes on regular work trips to Luxembourg, giving John a way to transfer the money. On his first trip, John ends up losing the money, resulting in an eventful night that sets off a series of incidents for the show to come. I don’t know anything about Dorman, but he really seems to get the tone for a show like this. I thought at the beginning that he was yet another wooden good looking actor that I’m forced to get used to because he’s reminiscent of people with that kind of look. But as things start to unfold, there’s something about the choices he makes in his performance that really give John some layers. He could be hugely unlikable due to some of his actions but the way he carries himself makes you feel bad for him at times. He’s clearly not well due to the psychological trauma he’s suffered over the years from his job and he needs some serious help. Even the show knows that the work he’s doing is harming more than helping him. As a viewer, it’s frustrating to see how he’s deteriorating more and more with no help or end sight. Throughout the show, we see John sing his folk songs as he uses it as a way to express himself and unwind after the hard work he has to do. They also cleverly give us information or help to move the story along in a way I appreciated. The songs have a bizarre tone that matches the show it’s attached to but they’re weirdly catchy, regardless of how dark they get at times. It also shows how committed Dorman is to the songs due to his brilliant acoustic guitar playing and his soothing vocals. It really helps to sell that aspect of the character.
In a moment of panic, John enlists a fellow “co-worker” at McMillan named Dennis, to help him along the way. Creator Steven Conrad’s brother, Chris Conrad, proves the best case for nepotism as he is amazing in every scene he’s in as Dennis. Conrad brings a nice sense of energy and enthusiasm that helps to bring levity to a show that grows darker and more intense with each passing chapter. The wholesomeness and the naivete he brings to the character is a nice addition to the show. Michael Chernus as Edward, John’s Texas congressman brother, is also fun. If you liked him as Piper’s brother in Orange is the New Black, you’ll enjoy him here as he’s basically that character if he managed to settle down in U.S. Politics. His childlike wonder and laidback demeanor also help to lighten the mood. It’s also nice to see someone in John’s family that actually cares about him and has good intentions towards his well being. Dennis and Edward team up as they attempt to help John retrieve the money once it’s revealed that things aren’t as they seem and his father didn’t keep his head on a swivel. As a result, Dennis and Edward’s partnership ends up being one of the bigger highlights of the entire show as it allows two of the more lighthearted characters to have some fun and bring some laughs. Hindering the mission is a dedicated Luxembourg detective named Agathe, memorably played by Aliette Ophiem. As she investigates a recent happening that links to John, who attempts to stall the detective any way he can so that the mission can continue. Ophiem makes the character more enigmatic with some of the weird character traits Agathe has, including the random rock, paper, scissors games she plays with various characters. The puzzling choices she makes at times make the cat and mouse game she has with John in season 2 more intriguing.
Terry O’Quinn is fantastic as John’s father, Tom. He gives a great sense of balance to his character. When we meet him, he’s clearly someone who seems to be a very caring and loving father. But it’s clear that he has his flaws as we see that his sons’ loyalty to him can be a dangerous thing. So dangerous that he allows the mission to get in the way of their personal lives. Tom seems to represent what happens when powerful higher-ups in politics do what they can to achieve their goals with no consideration of the damage they do to others. While he’s an antagonist in many ways, the show does a nice job at showing how much he cares for his sons. It’s just that he might care for America even more. Kurtwood Smith is fantastic as a reformed employee at McMillan named Leslie Claret, a legend in the world of piping who literally wrote the book on it. He’s playing a hardass yet again but his backstory does a fantastic job at understanding at why he is the way he is. The interactions he has with John are hilarious to watch the second time around. Once things are revealed about him, you realize why John gets under his skin so much. He’s a very ordered person living an ordered life, and here comes this guy to throw a wrench in the system. Debra Winger has a nice supporting role as Bernice, John’s mother and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in season 2 as John ends up getting her involved in the mission he was assigned to. She was a nice addition as she’s actually one of the few rational characters pointing how ridiculous and complicated things are getting. We don’t see too much of Debra Winger these days, but this showed that she can still give a fantastic performance. You could really understand that she loves John and wants him to be safe. Also making an impression is Kathleen Munroe as Alice, John’s wife. I was always compelled by her character because you really saw that like Bernice, she seriously loved John and was very assertive about wanting to save him from himself and his father. I really hoped she and Bernice would succeed as they really understood the suffering and the pain John was struggling to hide.
The Coen Brothers meet Wes Anderson as a spy movie aesthetic the show has is pleasing. Steven Conrad does an excellent job using that similar brand of surreal humor to make the show stand out from other spy stories. He maintains his own style as he managed to make a spy story that is more relatable and realistic than other spy movies and shows. The way Conrad writes his interactions feel the way people would actually talk in this situation, making it feel authentic and grounded with an assist from the great ensemble of actors he has to work with. He’s got the potential to be a Noah Hawley or a Ryan Murphy if Amazon made more of an effort to let more people know about this show. It has a nice cult following online, including on Reddit, where I hear about it every day. If that’s not enough to keep the show around, I’d be bummed but I would look forward to more of what he wants to do. But I want to keep my hopes as Conrad has expressed interest in doing more seasons and some of the people at Amazon are fans. I’m in love with Steven Conrad’s eccentric yet sincere style and would love it if he spread it through other shows if he got the opportunity. The show as a whole deromanticizes how the spy world functions because it shows all the damage this job can actually do to people due to all the devastation they leave in their wake. It’s smart that Conrad doesn’t inject his personal politics into the show. He just lets everything play out and it doesn’t take much to show that no matter the political party, there are politicians willing to send other people to do their dirty work but they’re not willing to practice what they preach.
It smartly leans into this in season 2 when Tom actually has to get more involved in the mission with John. Even Tom’s devastated by what he’s seen in his son once the story reaches a certain breaking point. What makes this show more appealing is how things are so meticulously detailed and it’s interesting how you pick up stuff on repeated viewings as a result. Conrad’s very playful with the characters and the story even with the very dry and reserved tone. He allows things to loosen up when things get too serious. The relationships with the characters are written with such heart and passion that you almost want to live in the world if not for all the underlying sadness and doom that constantly befalls the characters. Sometimes, people make decisions that are devastating and yet, I want to know what’s going to happen next. Despite its strange tone, it wears its heart on its sleeve as people, in general, become open with each other once they get to know each other. A lot of what we learn about the characters, while eccentric, is great for character development. A lot of it can help to move the plot along when we least expect it. You really grow to love the characters and hope that they don’t keep getting stuck in one bad situation after another. The story is so well crafted that even in its slower moments, you appreciate the nook and crannies buried in all the details you see here. Despite how sad it can get at times, it has enough humor to make it a pleasant watch. It’s got this weird understated sense of humor that just sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Yet, it’s not afraid to go big and broad when it wants to and it’s still effective. James Whitaker and wife Nicole Hirsch Whitaker’s cinematography is great at creating a world with its environment as every setting looks like a work of art with its attention to detail. It also helps to create some of the best visual comedy this side of The Zucker Brothers.
Season 1 is still my favorite of the seasons because it’s so consistently refreshing and entertaining. It manages to make so many unexpectedly original choices while maintaining a compelling story, that you can’t really be bored. I was having so much fun seeing all the hurdles that John has to go through. There’s also a nice balance of absurdist comedy and dark spy thriller that isn’t found too much on TV. Season 2 isn’t as good as it tends to make things more complicated than it should be. It’s too slow to a fault and probably has three too many detours, but it really sticks the landing by the end. You do get more invested in season 2 as it goes along and like the best binge watches, the pacing and the darker tone grows on you. Seeing how things get from A to B in terms of character development is a big reason that the season is still entertaining. You also understand why it’s darker than season 1 because the emotional and psychological stakes for John are raised, which Michael Dorman handles excellently. The overall story gets more intense and suspenseful even though it’s not in a rush to get to a resolution. But once you get to the season 2 finale, it feels like a satisfying ending to John’s story as a whole. It’s definitely worth watching for those wanting something more idiosyncratic from the spy genre.
I’ll give Season 1 of Patriot a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces and Season 2 gets a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!