Not that it matters, but sometimes you’re on a critical island because a series you love or loathe puts you there. But sometimes you’re on that island because in the Peak TV era, others may have forgotten to swim out to it.
In 2017, Amazon’s quirky and brilliant drama Patriot made its way to No. 6 (out of 46) on my list of best series of the year, and I fretted that I had put it too low. I have no idea if any other critics ended up watching the entire 10-episode run of Patriot. But I have a pretty good idea that I’m one of the only reviewers who put it on a best-of list for 2017 and routinely, passionately touted it during that year. The series suffered from Amazon’s now-abandoned strategy under its old regime of posting pilots online for viewers to “vote” on, which means that the pilot for Patriot was available Nov. 5 of — wait for it — 2015, before eventually starting its real season Feb. 24 of — wait for it again — 2017.
Is that any way to launch a series? No. But Amazon was new to the TV business then, while it’s now under new management with Jennifer Salke and co. and is, not to put too fine a point on it, kicking a lot of ass.
On Friday, season two of Patriot kicks off and the delightfully creative series from writer, director and creator Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) returns better than ever, a wholly original vision that has distant-cousin connections to the vibe of the Fargo television series and Wes Anderson films, while being its own weird thing. That thing is basically an existential look at the spy world, starring the wonderful Michael Dorman as John Tavner, a U.S. intelligence officer/assassin working off the books for his father, John (Terry O’Quinn, as fantastic as ever), who is the director of intelligence for the State Department.
When season one started, John was in Europe, suffering from PTSD and job burnout after killing the wrong target, which led him to smoking a lot of pot, riding his bike around and playing hilariously descriptive folk songs that detailed his secret missions — a kind of therapy for him and easily my favorite creative conceit in any drama I’ve seen in years. Thankfully, Patriot leans into those folk songs even more in season two, including one describing a mission as it unfolds on the screen, with John singing his plaintive, depressed hope-against-hope that it will all go well and he can at least have an hour afterward to drink a little wine and relax (it doesn’t go well, which is less spoiler than trend in John’s beleaguered service to his country).
Of the many little things that Patriot does so cleverly, tapping into John’s exhaustion and depression is one of them, with the immensely likable Dorman’s face wearing that weariness well as he goes on his missions, which suffer the whims of misfortune and unexpected twists almost every time, complicating his ability to do the job. Season two gets further into the weird dynamic that propels John — that early in life his father realized he could be an off-the-books asset with his sterling training and never-quit mental makeup, but that the sense of duty to both father and country and what the job often requires (killing people) would take their emotional toll. (Along with my podcast partner Jason Snell, another die-hard Patriot fan, we’ve taken to calling the series Sad Spies, which is not only a better and more accurate title but also an actual descriptor used by a character from the first season.)
Though that first season was the most criminally under-the-radar drama of 2017, it did solidify both Dorman as a great find and Conrad as an exceptional talent (not only are his verbal gymnastics with dialogue a thing of beauty, he’s got a fresh, astute hand as a director). With O’Quinn (Lost, Secrets and Lies, Castle Rock), Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s Show), Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal; plus an executive producer here) and this year Debra Winger, Patriot has a strong cast that often gets some of its best and most memorable work from lesser-known actors like Michael Chernus, Chris Conrad, Tony Fitzpatrick (who are like bumbling, well-meaning sidekicks, especially Chernus as John’s brother, Edward); Aliette Opheim; and, in the first season, Marcus Toji. This year, Kathleen Munroe, who plays John’s wife, is getting expanded work and running with it.
But so much hangs on Dorman, who has to be convincing for very long stretches as a guy who’s depressed, then a guy who’s injured (like, a lot), which makes his depression and sad-sack demeanor become heavier. On top of that, he also has to be magnetically interesting as the show’s lead, believably efficient in the spy tasks, not to mention funny in almost every scene and, in the ultimate piece from the toolbox, a convincing singer of those sad folk songs. He nails everything.
(By the way, last season’s lovely opening credits music, “Train Song” from Vashti Bunyan, has been replaced in a different intro by “Sure Shot” from the Beastie Boys, which is somehow perfect for the vibe.)
To get the ultimate appreciation of Patriot (though this holds true for most shows), you should start at the beginning. But that’s a good thing, since the series is, to repeat a word I kept coming back to as I watched it, delightful. It’s also very intricately plotted, as much of it takes place in Luxembourg and Paris, with twists galore (because this is a story about everything going wrong). I loved how the first season created John’s “nonofficial cover” name of “John Lakeman” and the insanely boring and complicated job he needed to take to then navigate to the bigger picture, which was preventing Iran from obtaining and using a nuclear weapon. It showed how Conrad could build worlds and invest in creating characters before then getting on to the more action-packed and pulse-quickening spy stuff — even if that stuff was of the violence-meets-comedy genre so difficult to pull off, tonally (which Fargo also does with aplomb). That first season is filled with surprises and inventive decisions, so it shouldn’t be missed.
There’s a confident swagger to this second season that’s often glorious to behold as it makes a few broadly funny decisions with body parts and feels more confident exploring longer, nuanced, ornately constructed streams of dialogue between characters. That there’s only eight episodes as opposed to 10 is the only bummer about it — but if people finally find this gem (Salke and Amazon are very happy with it), then it should live on.
If there’s a blessing in all of this Peak TV madness, it’s that you’re not obligated to race into this second season Friday, unsure of what to expect — you can go back and luxuriate in the oddness of that first season of Patriot. Because the “previously on” lead-in for this season, while tasked with doing a near-impossible job, doesn’t really do justice to those season-one twists.
So start from the beginning and be the first (of hopefully many) to finally discover this under-the-radar series and champion it with the passion of a heartfelt, myth-making folk song.
Cast: Michael Dorman. Terry O’Quinn, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Chernus, Kathleen Munroe, Chris Conrad, Aliette Opheim, Debra Winger, Gill Bellows, Tony Fitzpatrick, Julian Richings, Jolie Olympia Choko
Created, written and directed by: Steven Conrad
Premieres Friday on Amazon Prime