Hit and miss gags amid jarring shifts in Amazon’s ‘Patriot’
There are more than a few disorienting moments in “Patriot,” Amazon’s warped new comedy-drama-thriller-farce. The show puts the high in hybrid, in that you may feel mild confusion, giggles, and a strong hunger for more context while each hour unfolds. As the reference points swing from “Get Smart” to Wes Anderson to “The Fisher King” to the Jason Bourne movies, as broadly (and oddly) funny scenes give way to touching moments of familial love, you may find yourself with a not-unpleasant case of blurry eyes and dry mouth.
If “Patriot” were simply a drama, it might be most like “Mr. Robot,” which similarly throws the viewer into the troubled hero’s point of view. John Tavner (Michael Dorman) is a devoted young intelligence officer who, when we meet him, is suffering PTSD after too many ethical tradeoffs for the greater good. He’s numbed out and exhausted, his marriage is shaky, and the world through his eyes is a weary place. His emotional venting involves smoking a lot of pot and writing and singing confessional songs at open-mike nights, amusingly gloomy songs that he bases on his own violent job experiences. Classified intel never sounded so pretty.
The immediate problem is John’s proud father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), who is the director of intelligence for the State Department. Tom deeply loves John — in one sweet scene, the pair plays a Townes Van Zandt song together on guitar — but he also keeps putting him on assignment regardless of John’s fragility. This time, he sends his son on a mission that will require him to go unofficially undercover with an American piping company, in order to deliver money to agents in Iran. As a somewhat lame backup, Tom sends his less intelligent older son, Edward (Michael Chernus), to help John and keep everything on schedule.
The comedy winds into all of this familiar undercover-agent material through every pore. There are many absurdist set pieces, including one in which the head of the piping company, played by Kurtwood Smith, spouts a few minutes of corporate gobbledygook that sounds great but makes no sense. There are recurring scenes set at the company’s urinals, where the men talk business — piping and otherwise — and where, at one point, John is seen begging for a sample to pass a drug test. In one bit, John and his wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), are trying to have sex before he goes undercover, but they’re terminally distracted by the kiddie sounds of an ice cream truck outside their window. Early in the series, which is available on Friday, you realize that, as the action shifts among a half-dozen international locations and the job gets twisted up, there’s no reason to track the story closely; the jokes, and the human comedy, are the thing.
Some of the gags work beautifully, and others, particularly those revolving around brother Edward’s simple way of thinking, fall flat. “Patriot” is a show for viewers who enjoy tonal risk-taking, who are prepared to accept that you can’t hit a home run unless you take a swing. The plain, generic title of the series does no justice to the creativity on display from writer-director Steve Conrad (screenplays for “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), as he tries all kinds of ways to dodge genre expectations and come up with something distinctive. His ambition is consistent, even when his success rate isn’t.
Starring: Michael Dorman, Kurtwood Smith, Terry O’Quinn, Kathleen Munroe, Michael Chernus
On: Amazon, available Friday