Folk-Singing & Espionage: Amazon's 'Patriot'


In the many-chambered, multi-winged hotel that is Television 2017, there is room for all kinds of unlikely shows to check in -- a comic-lyrical tale of international espionage, family relations and folk-singing, say.

"Patriot," a new series appearing in its 10-episode entirety Friday on Amazon, is the story of an intelligence agent, John Tavner (Michael Dorman), who goes undercover with a Milwaukee industrial piping company in order to travel to Luxembourg with a bag of American cash -- literally, a bag -- intended to influence an Iranian election. (The story is set in 2012, far from our current reality.)

But as his father, Tom Tavner (Terry O'Quinn), a State Department director of intelligence, tells a colleague, John also "records folk music under an assumed name because he says it helps him with his feelings."

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"The songs," continues Tom, "Oh, they're pretty good. I mean, I'm his dad, so maybe I'm biased, but they're pretty good. But they're becoming honest, which is probably a good thing for folk singers in general, but not a good thing for one who works in intelligence."

Indeed, when we meet him, John is at loose ends in Amsterdam after a mission gone bad, recounting its details in song in a local coffeehouse: "I got some really bad intelligence," he sings in a lackadaisical baritone. "Shot an old male hotel maid/who was just making the physicist's bed/My evacuation team parked on the wrong street/and was arrested by the secret king's police/They got a fair dose of white torture/which is supposed to completely erase your sense of self."

He is in a delicate state; non-specific references are made to a "rough" and "challenging" year for John and his wife Alice (Kathleen Munroe). Now, he sings, "I just been getting baked/Just a-lookin' up at birds/Wondering why there aren't many male hotel maids in other countries/You never see that."

Tom sends John's brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), a melancholy congressman of no clear politics and seemingly much free time, to fetch John home from Amsterdam in order to send him to Luxembourg with that above-mentioned cash.

Written and directed by Steve Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), "Patriot" has some of the formality and whimsicality of "Fargo" or a Wes Anderson film. An unusually sleepy thriller -- in the "just woke up" sense of sleepy -- it is more diverting than suspenseful, less a roller-coaster ride than a scenic railway.

If the logical mechanics of its plot do not all bear close inspection -- the circumstances of John's hiring and his subsequent continued employment, for instance, don't feel plausible even within the terms of the show -- "Patriot" has a shaggy charm, attractive locations, fine photography and an able cast speaking well-wrought, intelligent dialogue (I have never liked O'Quinn more).

It has its own eccentric truth, let us say -- one that feels good to inhabit, notwithstanding the occasional collateral damage and the fact that nearly all of its characters are worried, for themselves or someone else.

Characters you imagine at first will be played as disposable -- John's boss at the piping company (Kurtwood Smith) or an overeager colleague (Chris Conrad) on whom John comes to depend -- have a kind of weight and dignity. Even minor characters feel vivid. Conrad has affection for all of them, whichever side they're on. Relative badness or goodness doesn't enter into it. (And why is that man, played by Mark Boone Jr., kayaking from Amsterdam to Luxembourg?)

In spite of the charged title, politics are beside the point here; this is just a story about professionals getting a job done, or more to the point, failing to do it again and again and making a mess in the bargain -- a mess that attracts the attention of Luxembourg City homicide detective Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim), whose all-female staff is mocked by male colleagues as "the department of skirts and stockings." At least in the series' first half, the talk is practical, not ideological, though where it's headed in the second I couldn't say. But I'll stick around to see.


Where: Amazon Prime

When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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This article is written by Robert Lloyd and Television Critic from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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