Critic's Notebook: The Case for Amazon Saving 'Patriot' (and Someone Else Saving 'Counterpart')

Sometimes supporting great content is good for the brand, especially in terms of the message it sends to creators and subscribers.
Amazon Studios
'Patriot' on Amazon Prime is a series you need to watch (and Amazon needs to keep).

I learned a long time ago, cruelly, that you shouldn't get too enamored of a favorite television series. They can get got. You can't protect them.

But at some point, all the crazy bloodshed that broadcast networks and some cable channels were unleashing when they were the big hitters just seemed like bad management and lack of faith and vision. They were killing shows out of fear and ignorance. That was just part of the deal in the industry for a long time.

At one point, I played my part in helping save Arrested Development on Fox. You know, before there even was a thing called Netflix to save it later. But mostly, critics couldn't really do a damned thing to save a show they loved. All we could do then (and all we can still really do now) is point people in the right direction and hope they watch.

It wasn't until the worry started creeping over to the high-end quality fare that the stakes were raised on a personal-interest level. And for me, the truth that brilliance has boundaries came at a TCA event, when Chris Albrecht, then head of HBO, didn't exactly endorse a fifth season of The Wire. It could just end where it is and the legacy would be fine, he said — nothing could be taken from The Wire if it just...ended.

As Albrecht went on to other topics, I remember spinning in my chair and heading for the back, where I had seen David Simon, creator of The Wire, just a few minutes before. He wasn't there. I looked out in the lobby. There he was, over near the bathroom, alone, almost ghost-white and distraught. I wasn't sure if he'd just thrown up or not. He didn't look like someone who would be fine with The Wire just...ending. No, he said, the story as he imagined it — and he imagined it all — wasn't over. We talked about Albrecht's words, wondering what weight to give them. Simon said that if he had to write a book to finish the story, he would. He was not kidding. He said it a few times. So for a moment there, I tried to envision reading the finale to The Wire.

Since then, most prestige series have been afforded their full run, supported at cable channels and then streamers, in an effort to give the story closure, to let it be told as intended. It doesn't always happen that way — it's still a luxury to tell a story for as long as you want. But it's more the norm.

And that brings me to two series I love. Within a couple of days, one, Counterpart on Starz, went from alive to canceled (Sunday marks its season — possibly series — finale) and a second, Patriot on Amazon, is still up for renewal but didn't exactly get a vote of confidence when Amazon exec Jennifer Salke, who has completely turned around the streamer, and her TV lieutenants, Albert Cheng and Vernon Sanders, sat in front of critics on Wednesday. "If you want it, write more about it," Cheng said. (A couple of hours prior, my latest Power Rankings! had already been posted on THR, with Patriot at No. 1, so at least one person didn’t need to be told.)

But this isn't just about a show I love being on the bubble and me being worried (depressed?) about its future. This is about why it would actually be smart of Amazon to keep it, just as it would be smart for someone to pick up Counterpart after Starz was dumb enough to cancel it. In many ways, Counterpart is a cautionary tale that Amazon should heed with Patriot. Beyond ratings — which are not the driver at subscription services anyway but are, reality check, still monitored by the people in the building — critically acclaimed series are smart investments, even if they're essentially loss-leaders.

This idea goes back pretty far in TV. Sometimes the strategy pays off, like Seinfeld for NBC or Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS, two ratings-starved shows that eventually became megahits. But more often it's something like NBC sticking with Homicide: Life on the Street. It was the value play. It was, arguably, ethical. But in the modern landscape, having a series that tells your audience you value greatness and that you're willing to potentially lose money on that stance — or, at the very least, stick it out even if the rest of the world doesn't see or appreciate it the way you do — sends a message of commitment.

High-end quality, even if it doesn't click right away, is great for a brand. Would FX be FX if it didn't do the Shield experiment? Maybe not. AMC went all-in for Mad Men, then doubled down on Breaking Bad, a series the more established FX had bought the script for and then, after some deep thinking — and with enough success to not take the risk — passed on (and look what happened, though HBO and TNT passed as well). Although the case for Patriot is different — it's an exceptional series, funny and dark, nuanced, smart, surprising, but not likely to end on the same top shelf as Breaking Bad — the sentiment about sticking with quality as good brand management remains. In 2017, I ranked Patriot sixth (out of 46) in my Best Series of 2017 and second (out of 32) on 2018's list (with Counterpart third, by the way).

Amazon already has two seasons of Patriot under its belt — there's still a strange history to the show that indicates its failure to catch on is at least partly related to Amazon's, um, unique history, and that with a little nurturing it could grow beyond its current bounds (and even if it didn't, I direct you back to the notion that sticking with greatness, especially if you can afford it, is ultimately smart for the brand). 

But about that weird history: I've been touting the brilliance of Patriot since it was created in the nascent days of Amazon Studios getting into the scripted game and ostensibly having its customers watch and rate pilots, then use that information in deciding whether to go forward. Thus the Patriot pilot was first made available on Nov. 5 — of 2015. The first season then started on Feb. 24, 2017. The disparity in time there is insane.

Now, back in the summer of 2016, after hearing from some disgruntled creators, I wrote about how Amazon, ever the newbie to making and supporting TV at the time, had zero clues on how to promote its own original shows (like Transparent, Catastrophe, Mozart In the Jungle and The Man In the High Castle). It took a very long time for that to get better, so it wasn't like tracking down Patriot was easy for would-be viewers. And creator, writer and director Steven Conrad, in a recent podcast talk with Moon Zappa for the WGAW podcast "3rd & Fairfax," joked about how difficult it is even now to find his show on the site if you just type in "Patriot." He's not wrong (though adding TV to the search gets you there).

The point is, Patriot was basically DOA given how Amazon, in the pre-Salke regime, handled things. Salke, after turning around the streamer, apparently really liked Patriot, however, and gave it a second season (after the turnover there, nothing was truly guaranteed), where it premiered on Nov. 9 of last year. The problem, however, is that the lovingly dense and crazy storylines of the series didn't lend themselves to jumping right in. You really had to watch the first season — and not enough people even knew about that season as noted above, so asking for new fans to start at the beginning was a challenge. So yes, there are baked-in issues with launching Patriot, but there is absolutely no doubt about its greatness. And great shows are not ever-present, even in this Platinum Age.

No matter how brilliant season two was — and was it ever — it must not have grown enough for a slam-dunk renewal, though more people were anecdotally saying they finally discovered it and more critics were on board by then. Hence the hesitation from the Amazon execs last Wednesday about Patriot

And this is where the Counterpart situation is very relevant. Starz, under the leadership of Albrecht, who tried to turn it into the next HBO, made huge strides once it got into the scripted game. But it struggled to find traction and refused to give its shows any additional attention on third-party platforms like Netflix (a situation I wrote about this week, as Albrecht is packing up and Starz is at a crossroads).

Would Counterpart have benefitted from some attention on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon between seasons? Absolutely. And it's clear that Starz, which has a troubling track record of killing the vast majority of its series after two seasons, needs to figure out a better plan. Cancelling a smart, intriguing series like Counterpart is not the way to do it; and yes, there must have been frustration that two seasons of Emmy-worthy performances from J.K. Simmons got ignored by Emmy voters, but that's when you double down in the belief that you really have something and everybody else will figure it out soon enough.

(MRC, which produces Counterpart, is owned by Valence Media, which is also the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.)

Starz failed there, and here is where that strategy has caused damage: While tossing money at creators certainly works, that two-seasons-and-cancelled track record is a very bad look. Why park your series someplace where it won't get seen or supported in the long haul? Lionsgate is banking on that Starz streaming app solving all of its problems on the precipice of the biggest game changer the industry has faced in years — the looming streaming wars. While the channel has good series (Outlander, etc.), it needs more of everything, including patience, and frustrating viewers with continuous cancellations is not the way.

Maybe someone picks up Counterpart; maybe they don't. But if you're evaluating whether a series has legs and eventual Emmy value (it just needs to be seen), then Counterpart has it. Maybe it's too late. But it's not too late for Patriot.

Conrad, the series creator, writer and director, told Zappa on that WGAW podcast that he's got multiple seasons' worth of stories to tell on Patriot. He just needs the chance. Amazon Studios, which is going global with force and has the money to keep Patriot alive, should allow the process of slow discovery, unique to streaming services, to take place. As Disney+, Apple and WarnerMedia get into the game this year, value will be judged by bench depth. Despite growing impressively in 2018, I don't think Amazon has enough great pieces yet to give up on one that might just need a little nurturing, especially given how its bungled launch (previous regime!) has slowed its visibility.

How about a little patience, belief and, yes, largesse?