Television Review: “Patriot” is an irreverent demystification of spy shows.
Amazon’s “Patriot” is a tough show to try and wrap your head around. How tough? The pilot, “Milwaukee, America,” features a man being extorted for clean urine mid-pee, another scene where the main character has to square off with a room full of Brazilian wrestlers, and yet another, somehow even stranger sequence where a supporting player proves his espionage bonafides by taking his shirt off and showing us how “ripped” he is. The show’s lead is a counterintelligence officer who’s unfriendly, bad at his job, and stoned 90% of the time. Oh, and he has a side gig as a café-dwelling folkie whose songs are riddled with accidental anecdotes from his secret life. Imagine if the guitar-strumming fuck-up protagonist of “Inside Llewyn Davis” occupied a milieu similar to FX’s “The Americans” and you’re not too far off.
As you can gather from the first paragraph of this review, there are a lot of tones being juggled in “Patriot,” and not all of them work. The show often seems to be going for the half-serious/half-kidding tone of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, particularly the sibling filmmaker’s admirable talent for punctuating intense, violent narratives with instances of droll comedy and deadpan existentialism. The show’s hyper-symmetrical framing and Euro-inspired visual patina also owes a considerable debt to director Wes Anderson, while its shambling, low-stakes vibe and character-driven comedy occasionally resemble Vince Gilligan’s great “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul”.
Of course, there will be many reviewers who use that dreaded adjective “quirky” to describe the show. And to be sure, “Patriot” is hard to classify. While I had a hard time getting a read on the early episodes (which, by the way, isn’t always a bad thing), “Patriot” eventually comes into its own about five or six episodes in and declares, in its own irreverent way, exactly what kind of show it is trying to be. It’s an occasionally bumpy ride, but I must say I was never bored in this bizarro world, and the first six episodes are fitfully intriguing enough that I’ll probably end up finishing the season, which is currently streaming in its entirety on Amazon Prime.
“Patriot” comes from the mind of Steve Conrad, who some of you might know as the screenwriter for Gore Verbinski’s “The Weather Man” and Ben Stiller’s remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (maybe a few of you also know Conrad as the writer/director of the underrated, queasy workplace comedy “The Promotion”). Like both the protagonists in those films, the lead of “Patriot” — a perpetually agitated would-be Intelligence Officer named John Tavner, who resembles the sullen, unemployed older brother of “Boyhood” actor Ellar Coltrane, mixed with a beefier Joel Kinnaman — lives in a world of his own making. The life-or-death nature of his surroundings often clashes with the wandering, stone-y reflections of his inner life. It’s a juxtaposition that’s plainly evident in the drowsy folk numbers that John belts out in between action beats, or in the show’s very mannered sense of visual mise-en-scene. Whereas, say, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” ultimately surrendered to tonal imbalance — Conrad’s clever script being woefully undermined by the sentimental grandiosity of Stiller’s directorial vision — “Patriot” appears to be to be Conrad’s vision through and through. The result is an amusing, if slight; look at a low-stakes personality trapped in the textbook definition of a high-stakes world.
Tales of spies and subterfuge have taken on an added resonance in the time of Trump; who can’t argue now that Joe Weisberg’s “The Americans” feels more grimly urgent now than it did even four years ago when it first premiered on FX? What’s novel about the premise of “Patriot” is that it takes the vantage point of a character who’s usually too out-of-it to know what’s going on — and he’s supposed to be our hero, both the paragon and the personification of the show’s skewed sense of right and wrong. The “hero” of “Patriot” is a man incapable of passing a standard workplace drug test, forget about assuming an N.O.C. (non-official cover) mission at a Midwestern piping firm.
Confused? Just you wait. “Patriot” is a show stuffed to the gills with narrative complications, sudden switcheroo’s and slippery games of identity and chance. It can be hard to keep track of all the show’s various moving pieces, but thankfully for us, “Patriot” also a show whose bemusing throwaway details are often far more interesting than its plot machinations (another similarity that the show shares with “Better Call Saul”). “Patriot” has a subtle, amusing way of deflating conventions of the spy drama and replacing those weary tropes with something bold and unusual. In this way, Conrad’s show is like the prankish class clown whom you ultimately can’t stay mad at for too long. The show’s topsy-turvy moral universe and tonal atrophy take some getting used to, but once you find yourself on “Patriot’s” very peculiar wavelength, the show provides a unique kind of thrill: one where it’s genuinely impossible to predict where any given episode will go.
John is first introduced after bombing an interview at the Milwaukee piping firm where he’s technically undercover as “John Lakeman”. With his pathetic excuse for an alias, John is hoping to infiltrate the organization at the behest of his old man Tom Tavner: an old-school, blue blood Intelligence Director played with tough, no-bullshit paternal grit by “Lost’s” Terry O’ Quinn. When John learns that he’s likely going to lose the job to a polite, overqualified man named Stephen Tchoo (Marcus Toji), he does what any self-serving undercover operative would do: literally pushes his competition in front of a moving truck.
The strange thing of it is, Stephen doesn’t die. Instead, John’s competitor somehow survives, though he finds himself wearing a protective helmet and slurring his sentences, even as he’s still clearly capable of executing his job with greater efficiency than John. This is “Patriot” in a nutshell: its lead character takes desperate, often violent measures to ensure that his goals are met, only to get knocked on his ass and realize that he’s drastically ill-equipped to the task at hand. The strategy recalls a less feral, more whimsical version of Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” formula, in which one wronged, utterly ordinary man finds himself assuming the role of vigilante predator without any idea how to actually dispense with violence.
The brutality in “Patriot” is less horror movie-gory than Saulnier’s modern exploitation classic: instead, violence is employed more as a kind of punctuation, as the exclamation point at the end of a particularly tense or involving scene (Noah Hawley’s “Fargo,” which makes its return to small screens later this month, often employs a similar tactic to gripping effect). Still, there’s a whole lotta treachery going down in “Patriot,” even if the show often seems a little too in love with its delirious asides to notice such things. The show charts a weird and wooly trajectory, following the bleary-eyed, disagreeable John from Milwaukee to Luxembourg and in between as the narrative hops around in time, introducing us to more members of John’s family and extended circle as he digs himself deeper and deeper into his own neverending hole.
The character I found the most compelling was Edward, John’s straight-laced, goofily agreeable Congressman brother played by the fast-rising character actor Michael Chernus. I first noticed Chernus in Noah Baumbach’s spectacular comedy “Mistress America” and the actor fills his characterization of Ed with telling, oddball details: like, for instance, how excited he is that he gets to carry an attaché badge when rendezvous’ing with his brother in Luxembourg, or the character’s gleeful insistence on wearing “era-appropriate” tracksuits that mirror the Beastie Boy’s look around the time of “License to Ill”. Chernus is warm and funny and relaxed in the role; one can almost see him taking on John C. Reilly-type parts later in his career. Oh, and did I forget to mention the detective (Sylvie Sadarnac) who’s building a case against John for a string of bodies he left behind in the aftermath of a particularly nasty job? Maybe the reason I forgot is that this slow-simmering plot point is one of the show’s least interesting elements, though it admittedly starts to generate some friction midway through the show’s season.
Does all of this madcap business sound like it’s up your alley? If it does, you’re probably going to love this show. For better or worse, “Patriot” resists being categorized at nearly every turn. When you’re expecting a heartfelt scene of pathos between John and his old man, the show throws in a narrative digression that’s almost perversely divorced from the emotional complications of the story. Where you might expect a thrilling cold open, you get a bizarre scene of Mark Boone Junior (“Sons of Anarchy”) trying to pawn off a busted Kayak to an irate Craigslist buyer. And where one would usually place a hyper-kinetic, Bond-style spy showdown, you may get a purposefully stilted and anticlimactic scene of droll comic dialogue, or a dreamy foray into surrealism simply for the hell of it. When you expect the show to zig, it zags. This can be rewarding in some places, and incredibly frustrating in others. “Patriot” is both rewarding and frustrating, in about equal measure. It’s also funny, strangely mournful in places, and above all else, truly original. However this season wraps up, original, I’m now officially intrigued as to what crazy business Steve Conrad will get up to next.
Grades: “Milwaukee, America,” B. “C-19,” B-. “McMillan Man,” B. “John’s To-Do List 5/18/12,” A-. “Un Moniseur Triste En Costume,” A-. “The Structural Dynamics of Flow,” B-.