4 out of 5

Created by: Steve Conrad

covers season 1

Out of the batch of creator-helmed TV shows greenlighted the last few years – meaning mostly singular oversight via a consistent writer or director, a trend somewhat kicked off by Breaking Bad and then formalized with True Detective – Patriot seems an especially odd selection.  While not every show has some super-powered name attached to it, you can generally follow the profitability logic  to a starting point.  Patriot’s creator, Steven Conrad, certainly has some hits to his name (The Pursuit of Happyneas, as a writer), but moreso a catalogue of mixed-reception flicks and a bomb (Unfinished Business); nothing much that would give me confidence in a serialized dark comedy.

And this seems to be confirmed with Patriot’s opening setup: As government man Tom Tavner (Terry O’Quinn) sets his secret agent son, John (Michael Dorman) up at a piping company in the midwest to be in a position for a money transfer that will eventually affect some middle-east business, Patriot seems to confuse cheek for cleverness, dipping too steeply into both gallows humor and attempts at Coen-esque snark.  In other words, it seems mean-spirited, and then wants to gloss it with idiosyncracies to pretend like all is well.

But, although Dorman’s forcefully inexpressive representation of John has been elsewhere criticized, it created an interesting character / action disconnect that didn’t quite sync up with that mean-spirit; alongside a particularly oddball quirk – John writes dour folk songs about his experiences in double-dealings – and that that quirk was allowed to be distinctly unclever (said songs are direct tellings, no metaphor applied) kept me curious as to whether or not more was ticking beneath Patriot’s hood.

And indeed, there was.

The disconnect I’d picked up on ends up being a main theme of the show, as does, in a way, the mean-spiritedness.  Many, many awful things occur in the show, whether via John’s hands or because of some events kicked off by what he’s involved in, and Steven Conrad’s script goes through great pains (to its detriment, to an extent) to show the Byzantine machinery chugging ungracefully along that powers these awful things.  The show avoids preaching on the matter, and sidesteps it becoming a tragedy by humorously uncomfortable forays into little splashes of humanity, from John’s inadvertent work confidant, Dennis (Chris Conrad), or his big-hearted brother, Edward (Michael Chernus).  It takes a similar tactic to avoid fully vilifying Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), John’s untrusting boss at the piping company, or shirking off cop Agathe’s (Aliette Opheim) keen abilities, as she keys on the funny business surrounding John.  The confidence to start us off in the deep, dark end of this makes the subversive comedy of errors and near-misses that ensues more effective; at the same time, Conrad strikes a certain paced tone to things that requires some churn to get from A to B.  Some sequences are outright genius – there’s a bit where John is sitting outside, likely contemplating all of the encroaching complications, when character after character strolls casually into frame to toss more wood on the fire – but then there are several moments where it feels like we have to wait for the show to catch up with what we know is to occur, particularly toward the ending.

Dorman’s performance ends up being key throughout, though, preventing the latter instances from sticking out too greatly.  He’s continually cold, but present; he experiences everything and just absorbs it, and Dorman does this without a hint of a wink, while remaining a notch above a disconnect.  It’s this just visible glow of the person inside that makes it work: That makes it equally more sad and more funny as shit continually hits the fan.

At season’s end (and I do hope we get another…) Patriot probably isn’t as clever as it wants to be.  With the aforementioned Coen’s a clear influence, the show never quite achieves the casualness with which the brothers are able to effect their dark comedies.  However, there are plenty of inspired moments scattered throughout the season that peg it as an above average work, and I praise that Conrad never stoops to telling us what to feel or think, which, as far as I’m concerned, elevates the material immensely, given that there are things to feel and think about within.