Hit or Sh**: Amazon’s PATRIOT
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Ah, to be back in the sweet, sweet embrace of prestige television. Whereas Netflix seems content to give a budget and a star platform to every Jane, Dick, and Sally that lands in their office, Amazon has historically been a little slower on the draw, giving the impression that they actually care about what kind of idea becomes an Amazon Original Series. As the recent SNEAKY PETE will prove, not everything’s a star turn, but I can at least rest easy with the impression that actual people are developing television shows over Jeff Bezos’s way, instead of what I presume to be a computer algorithm nestled safely in Reed Hasting and Marc Randolph’s Los Gatos mansions. And it shows, as no computer on Earth could have plugged in data and come up with PATRIOT as a result.
Amazon’s latest exclusive addition to Prime Video takes up the tale of John Tavner (Michael Dorman), an intelligence officer stranded in Amsterdam after an assassination attempt gone awry. His father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), a higher-ranking intelligence officer, needs John’s help in putting an escalating Iranian nuclear crisis to bed. This necessitates sending John’s Congressman brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), to fetch him. In order to deliver a fat wad of cash to the Iranians via a contact in Luxembourg, in the hopes of paying to sway an upcoming election in a favorable way, John must make use of a non-official cover. In short, he’s got to look and act the part of an unimportant lackey of the McMillan industrial piping firm in Luxembourg for business, all the while discreetly carrying out a dangerous mission vital to the continuing benefit of America.
And posing for Pitchfork’s Best New Music photoshoot
If that sounds rather illogical and needlessly convoluted, it is! But therein lies what charm is to be found in this latest project from the writer of THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (pretty weird, huh?). If you can manage to buckle up and stay aboard through the consistently dramatic tone shifts, you’ll find yourself in a strange, occasionally downright stupid world that will charm you, more often than not. However, I’m afraid that “if” is a rather key operative. While I have no problem laughing as John suddenly pushes a competitor in front of a bus because McMillan found him a stronger candidate, or Edward’s son’s grandmother telling him the story of Mary Poppins, only for him to immediately take a flying leap off a building with an umbrella, breaking both of his legs in the process, other viewers are likely to not share my unique comedic sensibilities. In addition, there is something fundamentally off about this world of story and our cast of characters: the only way John knows how to process his PTSD is by singing stream-of-consciousness folk songs a la the latest Sun Kil Moon, only the audience knows that the small black child Edward hangs out with constantly is his son, and Tom walks in on John and his wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), getting busy, only for the family to share a nice, hearty group chuckle while two-thirds of them are in their unmentionables. It ultimately highlights the absurd milieu that PATRIOT needs in order to function, but it does occasionally come across as a collegiate screenwriting assignment that’s straining to be quirky.
But not nearly as bad as COMMON AS LIGHT AND LOVE… was
Which is a shame, because when the pilot tightens its belt and plays things a bit closer to the chest, it’s a bona fide hoot. The biggest takeaway from PATRIOT is the fact that it doesn’t allow its global macro conflict to distract it from stellar situational comedy and narrative tension on the micro level. John spends months in Amsterdam smoking weed, only to have to think fast when required to pee in a cup to get a job with McMillan; John is promised that McMillan will be flying to Luxembourg from a private terminal, only to find out that plans have changed at the last minute and he’s now stuck with a carry-on containing multiple millions of Euros; John is forced to blow his cover to his hapless coworker, Dennis (Chris Conrad), only for Dennis to then insist on “helping” John any way he can. It’s all a refreshingly breezy, darkly humorous take on what should be HBO levels of serious, and in that regard, the show is endearing.
Unfortunately, PATRIOT does have some obvious areas for improvement. The fact is that John is a fun protagonist, but his generally aloof nature makes it hard for us to identify with him or the sticky situations he finds himself in. I don’t know a single thing about John; he certainly seems to act like he’s been emotionally damaged from a long career in intelligence and away from his family, but truth be told, even my earlier claim that he has PTSD maxes out at an educated guess. As such, while his distance from the other characters and the danger he finds himself in allows us to have enough separation to get our jollies, the show’s really going to have to turn the corner to get me legitimately concerned for John’s continued safety and success. In addition, the pilot crams most of its large scale narrative developments into the last 10 minutes. While John giving the big bag o’ cash to the wrong man and Luxembourg’s only homicide detective latching onto John’s tail are both plot elements that power my interest through to the next episode, they’re both also poorly justified and explained, which doesn’t bode well for the further twists and turns the narrative will inevitably take.
And it looks like they’ll be pretty weird!
PATRIOT’s pilot is worth taking a chance on. It’s not something like anything else currently on television, and while it occasionally gets bogged down with its own smug satisfaction with itself, it’s bizarre enough to keep more liberal-minded viewers invested throughout. It will be interesting to see if it can manage to actually tell a gripping international espionage tale and separate itself from indulgent scenes of pseudo-humorous folk song jamming, but for now, I’m curious to find out.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
PATRIOT is available to watch in its entirety on Amazon Prime