Being a spy isn't easy. You have to keep your complicated cover story straight while thugs try to break your knuckles, assassins never show up at a convenient time and have you tried to get a fake passport while Interpol is after you in under an hour? It's darned near impossible. Yet so many TV and movie spies make it look like a cakewalk, with their smooth one-liners, deft combat skills and ability to find time to chug a martini and bed that sexy Russian double agent.
Amazon's new series Patriot cuts through the glamour of spy life and replaces it with how it really is: a royal pain in the butt. Created by Secret Life of Walter Mitty screenwriter Steven Conrad, Patriot is quirky dark comedy that would likely only exist on a platform willing to take risks on its programming, making it a perfect fit for Amazon as the streaming service raises its sling at the Goliath that is Netflix.
New Zealand actor Michael Dorman plays John Tavner, a mentally worn-out spy dragged into the game by his father Dan (Terry O'Quinn), the State Department's intelligence director. John's exhausted from previous spy stints and when we first meet him, he's getting baked in Amsterdam and expanding his portfolio of folk songs — many of which include lyrics that literally detail the top-secret assignments he's working, something he thinks is therapeutic but may be more of a sign that he's never able to leave the life even when he thinks he has.
That's a great example of the show's absurd humor — he's literally strumming songs about how he lost a top-secret payout for all in a cafe to hear — that makes Patriot such an odd and endearing duck. Adding to the whimsical tone is the second half of that show that follows John's new life undercover at the drab Milwaukee-based industrial piping company that can grant him access to Iran, where he's supposed to help influence the country's election by essentially buying it for his gig as a spy. John sucks as an expert in piping and only gets the job because he "takes care" of his competition, and keeping his job under the strict eye of his hardass boss Leslie (Kurtwood Smith, in full That '70s Show Red Foreman mode) will be difficult, especially when he keeps parking in Leslie's spot. Like I said, Patriot is a goofy little show, in the best way possible.
Conrad isn't happy beating the audience over the head with jokes, but uses his remarkable skill as a director to add beautiful visual layers to the insane situations John finds himself in. Overhead shots of a pile of Brazilian jiujitsu wrestlers blanketing John after one of his missions inevitably goes wrong again make the silly gag even better; one-take shots of Leslie reciting a monologue about the most boring details of industrial piping turns into a Dr. Seuss-ian soliloquy about "rim riding rip configurations" and "jim joints"; a slow-mo POV shot from a mechanical bull of John competing in a European bullriding competition while Jeff Tweedy strums out a cover of Bill Fay's "Be Not So Fearful" is borderline magical. It's Wes Anderson-esque, without being so Wes Anderson.
Patriot does end up leaving viewers anticipating those moments more than the story itself, which can meander to more serious side character plots that don't have the same charm as John's accidental spy routine. At least through two episodes Amazon sent out to critics, most of the side-character work — including the personal lives of John's brother (Michael Chernus) and John's wife (Kathleen Munroe) — play second fiddle to the dry, bizarre and incredibly dark comedy, but because Patriot is so good at those, it's worth the wait. If you've got an opening in your busy TV watching schedule and are a fan of shows like Fargo, Patriot would fit in nicely.
Patriot's first season debuts on Amazon Video on Friday.