Amazon’s Patriot is the kind of show built for the streaming era. That has nothing to do with the way that it’s made or the story that it’s trying to tell (both of which are quite good, by the way). Instead, it has to do with the idea that this show, an eccentric, funny, and occasionally sad story of John Tavner (Michale Dorman), a beleaguered spy and sometimes folksinger, working for his father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), to undermine Iran’s nuclear ambitions, was never going to be a breakout hit for Amazon in the way, say, Stranger Things was and continues to be for Netflix. Instead, Patriot is the sort of series that’s ideal for a streaming service as an item in its back catalog; it’s the sort of show viewers are going to stumble across for years to come and likely wonder why in the hell they didn’t watch this little gem of a series before now.
Not that Amazon will mind, likely. Sure, like every other streaming service out there, Jeff Bezos’s house is leaning into the blockbusterization of television with billion-dollar bets on The Lord of the Rings and a number of other high-profile fantasy adaptations that could one day be the next Game of Thrones. But there’s still something to be said about shows that tend to catch on later and grow an audience (smaller though it may be) on its own, rather than attract hardcore fans of pre-existing IP. And so, in that sense, what’s appealing about Patriot is its outsiderness, and how it clearly came from a time when Amazon was writing checks to talented creators with a vision and letting them do their thing without the need to chase dragons as it were.
Some of that is still alive, certainly. Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs has been seen by some as a self-indulgent project with little in the way of oversight — or at least evidence of any oversight. That show’s not going to capture the zeitgeist like Mad Men did, but it may, over time, lure in some Prime Video subscribers (if they can navigate Amazon’s atrocious interface), making the show’s level of success something that’s measured over years, not the weekend it premieres. That is, in essence, what Patriot seems destined to become: a slow-burn, niche series whose audience stumbles upon its low-key brilliance while trolling the Amazon archives for something new and interesting to watch.
Patriot is a difficult show to classify, which naturally means it’s difficult to market. It’s unique, but it also feels like an amalgam of different films and television shows. Series creator Steve Conrad — who also writes and directs every episode of the second season — seems influenced by everything from the films of the French New Wave to John le Carré to The Professional to Wes Anderson. It’s a bizarre cocktail that somehow works; truly the Flaming Moe of television series. “I don’t know the scientific explanation, but fire made it good.” There’s no obvious fire in Patriot; instead the heat comes more from the precision of Conrad’s writing and direction, which fully embraces the show’s many eccentricities, but also conveys earnest emotion via a subdued performance by Dorman, whose sad, embattled, and likely suicidal spy answers questions regarding his well being with the words “pretty good,” while wearing a vulnerable smile.
John has been working for his father, a key figure in U.S. intelligence, for years and it has begun to take a toll. His latest assignment (as seen in season 1) has him posing as an engineer for a Wisconsin-based piping company that’s angling to do business in Luxembourg, where $11 million earmarked by his father to buy the Iranian election has gone missing. John’s tasked with bringing that money home or at least preventing it from falling into the wrong hands. It’s a straightforward conceit made wonderfully complex by the show’s ensemble cast, which includes Kurtwood Smith as Leslie, John’s boss and recovering addict, as well as Michael Chernus (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as John’s brother, Ed, Alice (Kathleen Munroe) as John’s wife, and Dennis (Chris Conrad), John’s neurotic, exercise obsessed, twin-phobic, and self-proclaimed best friend. All the while, John’s being investigated by a smart, dedicated Luxembourg detective named Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim).
The series excels at the subtle art of complication, of finding unique ways for a solution to a problem to create two more problems instead. Patriot refers to this as “Jellyfishing,” which, in and of itself, lends an entertaining level of self-awareness to a story that unfolds in a much more straightforward manner in season 2.
Part of that is because the series is working with two fewer episodes than season 1, which means there’s no time for Patriot to bounce back and forth between Wisconsin and Luxembourg, or in the case of the second season’s primary setting, Paris. But the more straightforward approach, complete with new opening credits set to The Beastie Boys’ ‘Sure Shot’ (a name given to John in season 1 by Gil Bellows’ character, Lawrence Lacroix), instead of the delicate and unearthly ‘Trawlerman’s Song,’ doesn’t take away from the precision of Conrad’s writing, or the show’s inclination toward long, dense scenes filled with funny discussions over seemingly abstruse things that inevitably unfold in unforeseen ways. If anything, season 2 doubles down on those elements, all the while rallying the supporting cast to actually support John, whose cover identity falls apart along with his body and mind, as his efforts to recover the $11 million and potentially assassinate a political figure go horribly awry.
Season 2 builds brilliantly on the first season with the arrival of Debra Winger as John’s mother, and through a deeper exploration of the sometimes misguided relationships between children and their parents, and the horrific repercussions of violence, all without weighing itself down. Patriot is the sort of show that rewards those who are willing to stay invested in it. The pilot episode is a bit ponderous at times, but it doesn’t take long for the series to become a pleasurable and delightfully eccentric experience (in season 2, there are folk songs about animated tea cups and stealing guns from a very nice Senegalese grocer) that really does make it like nothing else on television at the moment.
Patriot seasons 1 & 2 are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.