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Amazon’s Patriot is a good example of how ‘peak TV’ inspires over-confidence in old ideas

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Did everyone forget that good TV actually is hard to make?

Amazon’s Patriot isn’t bad, except for from an SEO perspective (“oh, here I am all of a sudden being reminded of a woefully inaccurate historical drama starring the very gross Mel Gibson or reading reviews of the 2017 Jeep Patriot, ‘the best priced SUV in America.’”). Created by Steve Conrad (the writer behind The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Pursuit of Happyness), it’s a competently written dark comedy about an off-color intelligence officer with a hot wife and a weird dad who talks about international conspiracy as if he’s mulling over buying a new tractor for the family farm. If you watch it, you’ll probably be fine. Content, even.

The lead actor is charming, for sure. Michael Dorman, a New Zealand-born actor who’s done mostly Australian TV until now is a younger, more attractive Michael Shannon and a funnier, more physical Michael C. Hall. He truly is the next great Michael, and I believe that. The rest of the cast is a bunch of faces you probably recognize from somewhere or other (Orange is the New Black’s Michael Chernus, Lost’s Terry O’Quinn, That ‘70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith). But if you stick with this show, you are probably watching it for Michael Dorman.

Dorman plays a spy named John (get it? he’s classic!), who has a dark sense of humor and puts on a great “who me?” face when he’s called upon to violently murder someone as a scene’s punchline. He is, of course, tortured. Reluctant. Not sure he’s into it. Bound by familial obligation (his dad is his spy boss and his brother is a Congressman). Way more into his wife than he is murder (his wife is played by the basically unknown Canadian actress Kathleen Munroe, who is of course sitting down to drink tea in her underwear when he gets home from his first bizarre spy task). Oh my goodness, what a lot of challenges he faces.

It’s so hard to have feelings

He’s also a stoner and folk singer, and takes several breaks in the first episode to croon out exposition like “I’ve just been getting paid for looking up at birds wondering why there aren’t male hotel maids in other countries you never see that” and “I’m showing increasing signs of mental instability.” The soundtrack of the episode is mostly John’s own folk music stylings, mixed up with some Townes Van Zandt.

You could get hammered in three minutes playing a drinking game called “take a shot every time you feel like saying oh shit seems like these guys have seen a Coen Brothers movie huh?” The show has the same color scheme and uncanny violence as Fargo (and Noah Hawley’s Fargo), as well as the same comedy style and wry appreciation for white men plainly stating their love of power as Burn After Reading. At one point, John’s father has him recite a complicated plan back to him to prove he was listening. “Money, Luxembourg, Iran, buy an election,” he grumbles, and his father admits that’s basically it.

It’s fine, but not that interesting to drop back into a setting this familiar. Patriot has plenty of elements that signify it as prestige television (premium streaming service, aestheticized violence, Europe, politics, inscrutable plot), which is often, in this “golden age of television,” enough to earn a show a “you should probably eventually watch this” stamp. In fact, The Washington Post titled its review “Amazon’s Patriot is another show you should get around to watching someday.”

The show’s most offensive shortcoming is also the most common one in this golden age of television. It’s boring, and very confusing. Our protagonist is in Milwaukee, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, and I think Texas (?) in the first episode and it’s never especially clear why he’s traveling or when he’s traveling. He has to shove a man in front of a bus and steal someone’s urine to maintain his undercover job in Wisconsin, but no one ever says why he needs one or why the government makes him do that dirty work himself. He also interacts with a half-dozen barely differentiable white men over 60, one of whom hands him this note:

Prestige television has gotten sort of out of control. Shows like Stranger Things or The Night Of are made by subscription outlets and involve so many proven ideas that they signal they’ll definitely be good and con us into believing that there’s no meaningful difference between a TV show that’s truly interesting and a TV show that’s just well-made and not brazenly stupid. We’ve been told everything is good now, and that streaming services are the future of good stuff, and that anything weird is visionary, and pastiche is high art. Television viewers have been conditioned to expect that “premium” shows will cater to their range of reference: ‘90s neo-noir, ‘80s kitsch, ‘70s music, true crime, cable news, political paranoia, “Don Draper but [fill in the blank].” If a show creator can think of a way to include one of these things we’ve designated prestigious, it inspires a confidence in the end-product that’s often way out of line.

For examples, see The Night Of, or Stranger Things, or True Detective (both seasons, sorry), or Hulu’s 11.22.63, which had the benefit of being a streaming exclusive, a paranoid historical drama, an adaptation of a famous novel by a very famous author, and a project co-signed by man of the hour J.J. Abrams, yet seemed to be watched by basically nobody and didn’t warrant so much as a whisper during awards season.

Patriot is, again, not bad. It is better than some of Amazon’s other original series, and it also gets bonus points for casting an unknown lead actor instead of pulling the classic FX or HBO move of signing different A-list stars for each season. It’s miles above Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s insufferable and basically unwatchable Phillip K. Dick adaptation that scratches a similar international conspiracy itch but with the added handicaps of terrible writing, thin characters, and unfortunately timed marketing campaigns. But Patriot will still only get attention for what it signals, not for what it actually is: fine.

The first 10-episode season of Patriot is now available on Amazon Prime. You can stream the first episode for free without a subscription.