This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Amazon’s “Patriot” has echoes of “Fargo” (and other Coen productions) in the way it tries to balance dark violence with outbursts of sardonic comedy. It is an espionage thriller couched in the construct of a workplace comedy, and all of it is conveyed with something of a self-referential wink and a nod. Isn’t this crazy? Isn’t this strange? Isn’t this different from what you usually watch? As with so many things that shoot for that delicate balance of dark comedy that the Coens have mastered, “Patriot” falls just short. There are elements of the show that work—almost enough to keep you watching it—but it’s a series that I found myself checking out of mentally at least once per episode. Watching "Patriot" you get the feeling that none of the people who made it care about the characters or what’s happening to them, and never asked themselves why you should either.
The too-bland Michael Dorman plays John Tavner, an intelligence officer who likes to sing confessional folk songs (sometimes, distressingly to his superiors, about his assignments) and misses his family as he’s often undercover on international assignments. His latest assignment isn’t the kind of sexy, Bond-esque mission one would expect from a life as a spy—working at an industrial piping company. “Patriot” then becomes surprisingly dense with industry speak about piping to illustrate how deep John has to go to keep his front, which is designed to allow him international travel to stop an Iranian nuclear program (with this and “Homeland,” it appears Iranian nukes are going to be the spy theme of 2017). You’ve been warned.
John’s father is played by the excellent Terry O’Quinn as Tom Tavner, who also happens to be the State Department Director of Intelligence, in command of John’s assignments. John has a brother (Michael Chernus) who’s a Texas congressman, meaning he knows about John’s missions and even helps out when he can. Kathleen Munroe plays John’s wife, Aliette Opheim practically steals the first five episodes as a homicide detective, and Gil Bellows & Kurtwood Smith play John’s superiors at the front.
How does a lifelong spy with PTSD and serious homesickness adjust to life as businessman in Milwaukee? Of course, much of the humor of “Patriot” comes from the blending of the worlds and John’s navigation of suburban office life. The show’s most enjoyable moments typically come courtesy of Chris Conrad as Dennis McClaren, a co-worker to whom John has to reveal his cover so he can borrow his piss to pass a drug test to get the job in the first place. Oh, did I mention John also pushes his competition for the job in front of a car, and then said competition returns with a severe head injury to become a supporting player on the show? Yeah, it’s a dark ride, and props to creator Steve Conrad for taking questionable risks in terms of tone, but the balance just isn’t quite there. Every time “Patriot” feels like it’s going to click into its rhythm and start working consistently (such as in some interesting background for Smith’s character in episode three), it derails itself with a wild tonal shift. And, most damagingly, Dorman’s flat performance doesn’t serve as the bridge from the show’s espionage elements to its comedy beats. He too often plays John as bored, almost daring you not to be too. That will be your mission, should you choose to accept it.
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