The Spy Who Bored Me: Amazon’s ‘Patriot’ Is a Man-Filled Dramedy About a Spy Who Sings Folk Songs

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Amazon’s Patriot pilot is a paradigmatically violent, middle-shelf trifling with decent actors, one that shouldn’t be taken to series but probably will. An extension of the domain of the mind of Steve Conrad, the writer behind unmemorable films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Weather Man, it’s basically an attempt to shoehorn ho-hum family troubles into a third-order Intelligence dramedy. And it’s another fine example of the hardening of the American male brain into a mortar shell.

“What if an intelligence agent exorcised his secret life through folk songs?” It’s a weed lover’s conceit, one confirmed moments later when the screen goes up in smoke. It also announces a workable parallel: in a TV world of decidedly male ennui, one that routinely borders on sociopathy, Patriot’s protagonist John is a pothead spy; whereas Mr. Robot’s Elliot is a morphine-addicted hacker. Guess which show goes harder?

Well, John, played by a closed-mouth, wide-eyed Michael Dorman, is technically under non-official cover, which means he performs his espionage as a private-sector employee without substantial help from the American government. Or, to be more specific, he works (improbably) for his father, a former congressman (improbably) turned spymaster played by Terry O’Quinn in the episode’s best performance. O’Quinn does well to drop the archetypal stoic patriarch act and plays his best caring father. But it’s a little much when they sit down with guitars to talk Iranian sanctions and sing Townes Van Zandt.

Much of the show, in fact, is too much — or too little. A frisbee, at one point, hits the jaded John on his shoulder. “London Calling” is played when a British guy wearing a Union Jack shirt rides a mechanical bull. The comedic lines don’t land, in other words, and much of the episode is as blank and nondescript as its settings. The more John caroms around the world, from Milwaukee to Luxembourg (the apotheosis of the nondescript), the more everything looks the same.

And the too much is much too familiar. Mike Hale of the Times compares it (mostly favorably) to Mr. Robot, but the two shows are related only as mutual progeny of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia, a show that increasingly proves its influence as TV writers gullibly look the other way. (Mr. Rabbit vs. Mr. Robot, anyone?) Might we ask why, after Utopia, scenes of violence are now delivered with an inverted casualness and typically in symmetrical shots? Or why every episode must open with a biting, revelatory set piece that bleeds into an “interesting” soundtrack? In this case, John pushes a job competitor in front of a moving truck. And the first half of the episode recounts what happened in the week (or so) prior; that is until we’re jarred awake by a clever jump cut that shows the truck finishing its work.

I’ll be less owlish about the show’s second half: it does improve a little. But ultimately the lack of memorable women characters, the American screenwriter’s ingenuous decision to make a spy show on all fours, a humanized, semi-comedic story about “the family business” of espionage — in 1930s Europe they would have owned a fabric store — betrays a willful naiveté. The creators here, and by extension, at Amazon, couldn’t even strike at false importance in an era of widespread state and corporate espionage. Instead, it’s a spy show that steals visual gags from the movie Spy, an extended half-serious one-liner from Dad, another confused, smoked-out whimper from the TV mouth of the American man. The Brink was better than this.