Netflix may have the numbers, but Amazon is finding niche after niche to occupy. Patriot, a series with some of the best episode title cards outside of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is another of the streaming service’s weird gems, and its second season doubles down on its uncomfortable pleasures.
Nothing should be funny about the parental psychological abuse perpetrated on John Tavner (Michael Dorman, whose sad stare and clenched jaw carries so much of the season) by his father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), turning spycraft into the family business and instilling patriarchal pressure on a deteriorating intelligence agent. But it is. It’s funny, soft, and distantly sad, like reuniting with an old college buddy you’ve since lost touch with. None of these feelings fit into traditional spy stories, but these aren’t your traditional spies.
Lapsed addict Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith), John’s brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), and John’s best friend, Dennis (Chris Conrad), accompany the father-son duo as they get into and out of dicey shenanigans involving large amounts of money in Luxembourg or assassinating an Iranian bigwig—all with a sublime sense of controlled, colliding chaos. Watching it is like a vaudeville Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where each of those professions are replaced by one of the Stooges. Hell, we’ll even throw Shemp in to even it up.
This mob of idiots (some of whom are the self-branded “Three Fuck-ateers”) runs amok in a world they not only barely understand, but also actively dislike being in, which is tragicomic in the extreme and as absurd as a country song about how to obtain a gun in France—which, of course, you’ll hear in Patriot. That last example is one of the secretly batshit interludes lying in wait for unsuspecting viewers of this otherwise nondescript series. Like its spies, Patriot is a master of the Trojan horse: using benign appearances to sneak in some really subversive shit. In this case, its Tom Clancy exterior smuggles in a Coen-esque quality, following characters that aim high and are brought low by hilariously underwhelming forces, like their own well-intentioned stupidity.
The real-world connections (Iran’s nuclear program, TV snippets of Obama speeches) partially detract from the absurdity, since there’s no dropping of actionable truths à la The Big Short, and a clunky framing device is wholly unneeded in a series that’s already throwing us for as many loops as it can. In this, Patriot can be hit-or-miss, pushing together two wildly different (and totally distinct, in the world of TV) energies until it becomes so awkward, strange, and lopsided that it makes Barry seem like slapstick. But when it works, it sings.
Exciting split-screens tell stories on different parts of the timeline in ways that make your eyes chase the plot as much as your brain, imbuing the processing part of the show (where you try to figure out what the hell is going on) with the same dour, screwball energy as the action itself. I love it when deadpan feels this lively. Series creator Steven Conrad writes and directs the show with this tone constantly in mind, but with the aesthetic of much more serious spy thrillers, like the Bourne films, keeping things dark and (often literally) blurry. Conrad writes with an uncommon structure that prioritizes the episode as punchline rather than full story, which is often plenty of fun, though this tactic can feed into the feeling of being lost at a party where everyone’s stoned but you and they’re all talking about world politics.
Plenty of confined conversations, in courtrooms and coffeeshops and car rides, are punctuated with shots of sad people in cavernous spaces, engulfing them as their humanity cowers beneath forces too big to comprehend. That doesn’t stop them from trying, with all the tragic masculine confidence you love to see crumble and want to nurture when it’s down. The competent women—including John’s wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), his mom, Bernice (Debra Winger), and Detective Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim)—try to clean up these emotional and tactical messes, but everyone usually ends up being a nice balance between obnoxious and sympathetic.
Successfully walking that tightrope, and the series’ many other tightropes, keeps Patriot perfectly watchable, even if its muddled themes and absolute weirdness might keep its audience limited to those looking for a very specific kind of oddity. But if the idea of a song about Chip the cup from Beauty and the Beast pulling off a political killing makes you chuckle, you’re probably in the right place.
Season Two of Patriot premieres Friday, Nov. 9 on Amazon Prime Video.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.