If you were a fan of “Quarry,” then you’ve got a new show to watch. It may sound a bit odd — unhelpful, even — to recommend a new, under-hyped TV show by comparing it to an old, under-hyped TV show, but the Cinemax series still hoping to achieve cult status (and/or a second season) has quite a bit in common with “Patriot,” Amazon’s latest original drama. And both series deserve the attention of anyone prone to mysterious tales of undercover agents.
To wit: Both series track the lives of men who want to quit their government jobs. Both men are white, quiet types with facial hair who struggle to convey their emotions to friends and family. Both men are suffering from various forms of PTSD. Both men are forced to keep their jobs (for varying reasons). Both series are set in the past. Both series are told from a unique, slightly off-kilter vantage point, and both series employ ambitious production values — namely, some spot-on long takes — in an effort to stand out from a crowd of spy-like stories.
What sets “Patriot” apart — and makes it a bit easier to digest in binge-able quantities — is its peculiar sense of humor. Rather than a tortured soul living a pained existence muted only by heavy amounts of alcohol, “Patriot’s” protagonist, John Tavner (Michael Dorman), expresses his pain by playing folk music and smoking a lot of weed.
The son of the State Department’s director of intelligence (Terry O’Quinn) and brother of a Congressman working closely with his pop (Michael Chernus), John is stuck in a life he’s not sure he wants; especially after being caught and tortured because his support team royally screwed up. After being released to a life of leisure in Amsterdam, John misses his wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), but is tempted to bring her to him rather than return home to his job as a N.O.C. agent — non-official cover. It’s a risky profession given its limited governmental protection, and John should know better than to accept a case his father asks him to handle under the promise that’s it’s simple. Of course, unforeseeable complications keep John hooked longer and deeper than he’d like, leading to many an unexpected road.
“Quirky” is a word you’ll see a lot in describing this character and the show itself, in part because it’s the easiest way to encompass a series built around offbeat rhythms, nonconformist structure, and the idiosyncrasies of life usually kept out of stories about secret agents. While plenty of shows and movies illustrate the impossibilities of the spy trade as presented by James Bond and Jason Bourne, few have done it while maintaining a dramatic context. “Casino Royale” (1967), “Austin Powers,” “Archer,” and more spoofs have taken extreme comedic jabs, and shows like “Homeland” and “The Americans” have attempted to offer realistic (if still incredible) examples of a life led in secrecy.
“Patriot” is living somewhere in between. It repeatedly points out the absurdity in believing our government and its agents can know every single thing about how a target will behave and what scenarios could come up in the field. There are bound to be surprises, and they aren’t so simply handled as calling for backup or shooting your way out of a jam. Unanticipated consequences cast faint aspersions on the missions and people who run them, providing the show with a political voice based in personal beliefs.
But the work/life balance takes priority. Folly after folly piles up for poor John, and the chaos of his job — plus the lingering notion that he might be ill-fitted for it — builds tension (like most mole stories) while supporting an ever-growing sense that such missions skirt the line between absolutely vital and absolutely nonessential. If so many things go wrong and the world doesn’t end, maybe John really should quit and live life cycling through the hillsides and playing his guitar. It’s the anti-spy story told in a world of inept spies.
At times, “Patriot” can become a little too absorbed in its own world. Within the first four episodes, more than a handful of scenes either reiterate plot points that might not have been clear before or lead to a bizarre, confounding stopping point. Some of the latter scenes are picked back up later, but there’s no clear motivation for splitting them up so haphazardly, other than to emphasize the quirky nature of the story in general. None of the episodes are quite as clean as the premiere, either, but they’re also clearly building toward something.
It’s just not in the show’s nature to let us know what that might be. By the end of Season 1, “Patriot” could succumb to its ever-expanding plot, content to live within its eccentricities and ride its oddball essence for seasons to come. Or it could take a passionate anti-establishment stance, fighting back against the risky ambition of John’s family and campaigning for a simple life driven by moral values. “Patriot” could become a lot of things, but right now we feel safe with the following recommendation: If you miss “Quarry,” watch this.
“Patriot” Season 1 premieres in its entirety Friday, February 24 exclusively on Amazon Prime.