One of the great things about the spy genre is its elasticity: It can accommodate the cerebral melancholy of “The Americans,” the adrenalized immediacy of the Jason Bourne films, the suave adventure of the James Bond movies and the kind of delightful escapism NBC’s “Chuck” provided for five seasons.
“Patriot” at least tries something novel: It transplants the sensibilities of a Wes Anderson film into the world of spies and their associates. Burned-out operative John Tavner (Michael Dorman) gets a job at a Milwaukee firm that is set to take care of Iran’s piping needs, but his secret mission is to prevent the country from making its nuclear program operational. His pragmatic father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn), runs the State Department’s espionage program, and his rather passive brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), is a U.S. congressman. Completing the trio of men around John is Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith), John’s irascible new boss at the piping firm.
It’s a fairly solid premise for a secret-agent caper, and “Patriot” squanders it completely.
John is a bland, depressed man who routinely does unpleasant things, which would be fine if his moroseness or his violent acts were compelling in any way. But nothing about his plight or personality is interesting, and that’s just one of the ways in which “Patriot” departs from the kind of deadpan, slightly askew works that it inexpertly imitates. As for his mission, it goes wrong in ways that seem entirely predictable, and the attempts at dry office comedy rarely land with any impact.
A very wry comedy-drama hybrid does not necessarily have to prominently feature characters who are deep or three-dimensional. But at the very least, they should be charismatic or amusing, or participate in quests worth following. John has absolutely nothing going for him, nor are the other characters memorable, aside from Smith’s understandably frustrated Leslie Claret.
One of “Patriot’s” main problems is, John and the characters closest to him operate in a high-stakes world in which men, women and children can and do get hurt. The characters don’t seem to care much about any of the damage they do or inadvertently cause— some of which is played for laughs — and yet the show still wants to wring pathos out of various difficult situations and dilemmas. This dismissiveness and even condescension is not only deeply annoying, it destroys the program’s attempts to create a delicate and mildly irreverent tone. In trying to have it both ways — creating situations in which the stakes matter and they’re also laughable obstacles — the show all too frequently misfires in both directions.
At first, it’s nice to see TV veterans O’Quinn and Smith on screen again, but soon it becomes grating to see such talented actors trapped in such an airless, self-indulgent and smug story. John’s adventures in Milwaukee and Europe grind out at a glacial pace — if ever a show should have stuck to a half-hour running time, it’s this one. And every so often, “Patriot” stops cold so that John, an aspiring folk singer in his spare time, can sing a tune about the questionable things he’s done for the government. Though his singing voice is passable, the tiresome songs provide yet more false notes among many.