Amazon’s “Patriot” is a spy show, a comic drama, an epic test of its protagonist’s will, a boldly cinematic tale told occasionally through song, and perhaps the best TV show you didn’t know existed.
“I fly a lot now, and I keep walking up and down the aisles, hoping to see someone watching it on their tablet,” says showrunner-creator-writer-director-composer Steven Conrad. “My daughter photographed someone, so I know it has happened; it just hasn’t happened to me. So until that day comes … ”
Maybe you’ve seen sporadic ads at bus stops depicting a glum fellow in a hotel room with a hostage, or trying to keep his head above water, surrounded by jellyfish. Both are fair representations of “Patriot,” especially the latter. But even if you’ve seen those ads, you probably still have no idea what the show is about. Even Conrad has difficulty compressing it into a sellable nugget:
“Well, what we say about the ‘elevator pitch’ is, ‘You’d have to be in the Empire State Building.’ ”
John Tavner (aka John Lakeman, played by Michael Dorman) is a low-key CIA operative trying to recover in Amsterdam from a deeply traumatic mission. John’s wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), is intelligent and supportive, but doesn’t know the true depths into which he descends for his job. His father (Terry O’Quinn) is a big wheel in the agency who believes his son, though damaged, is the best choice for an important mission to keep Iran from going nuclear.
Simple enough: Infiltrate a Milwaukee industrial piping company sending a delegation to a Luxembourg conference, and under that cover, pass a large amount of cash to a visiting Iranian ally there. But the mission takes countless wrong turns — Conrad’s superb plotting keeps tension ratcheting up — and what should have been a simple exchange ends up taking two full seasons of “Patriot” to play out. As problem after problem arises, John’s solutions can be ingenious and complex or abruptly and brutally efficient. Though it all makes sense in retrospect, in the moment, the hairpin turns are hard to see coming. Yet that compelling, often comic intrigue is just the icing on a messed-up layer cake.
Conrad says his actual pitch to Amazon went something like, “ ‘I think we can write for hours about a person who’s at his breaking point and allow this character to be remarkable because he withstands so much.’ ”
The showrunner projects the absent-minded, mad professor, toiling in skeletal Hollywood post-production offices for the first season of his other show, “Perpetual Grace, LTD” (on Epix in June). Beside him on the couch, mostly deferring and looking nothing at all like John Tavner, is a clean-cut Dorman.
Conrad says, “That was it for me: to be able to write about a person who was overmatched by the task but then has the interior resources and devotions that would allow him to never stop.” Nevertheless, John finds he can’t do it all alone — and a kind of family forms from a bizarro bunch of supporting characters.
There’s John’s brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), a cuddly Texas congressman who dreams of living the action-hero version of John’s life he imagines. There’s Luxembourger detective Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim), beneath whose stunning facade is a dogged determination that proves a match for the CIA’s best attempts at obfuscation. There’s John’s boss at the piping firm, Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), a legend in the world of industrial piping who’s back on top after a precipitous fall down the slopes of addiction. Leslie starts as one of the primary antagonists, gets put through the wringer by John — mostly unintentionally — and develops into one of the show’s more compelling figures.
Then there’s John. When we meet him, he’s strumming his guitar and singing an original folk song in his gentle baritone in the streets of Amsterdam. It’s a gloomy ballad of a black op gone wrong.
He had been tasked with assassinating a scientist to “keep Iran from activating short-range nuclear weapons to de-stroy Israel,” he croons. “I got some really bad intelligence, shot an old male hotel maid who was just making the physicist’s bed … I was arrested by the Secret King’s Police and got a fair dose of black torture, which is supposed to completely erase your sense of self.”
This is a folk song. In a public square.
Conrad says, “One of the questions people ask us when anybody cares to ask us anything at all is, ‘Is it a comedy or a drama?’ It’s a drama. We stop and X-ray John all the time. We see inside. That interior baggage, that struggle to hold it together, I think, belongs in the world of drama.
“The songs are elementally that: At any moment, he might obey the inner appetite, the need to confess or to share. And he’s expected to keep everything secret. What it is, is a longing to connect.”
Conrad creates the shape of the songs, then works with Dorman to make them truly John’s.
“It helped tremendously that Mike is a really potent musician. In our walk of life, everybody’s got a guitar and everybody wants to be both, and you seldom meet a guy who really is both.
“It’s not fair that he is,” he says, and both men laugh.
“Mike happens to have abundant, invitational, interior light. It sounds trippy, but it’s a function of photography where there’s a subject that illuminates somehow. There is a thing going on behind the eyes. And Mike is a remarkable young actor in that regard. You feel the life inside.”
Dorman, smooth of cheek and mischievous of grin with large, expressive eyes, presents as a nice young man (he’s 37). During the conversation, clouds pass over his face as he listens, then run away as he laughs with his friend.
“I’d never read anything like it,” says the New Zealander of the pilot. “Sent a message to my team, saying, ‘This is the one. I love this. I have to be a part of this.’ The way that every character was well-rounded and had a voice. The voice of that script resonated with me in a way I’d never experienced before. You know when you watch something, or you meet someone, and they just sing to you; you don’t know why? It had that element to it.
“I threw everything else out on the gamble that I was gonna [get it].”
The show’s unusual cinematic demands will occasionally include, for instance, a meticulously choreographed, unbroken take. Or require an actor to deliver deliciously dense piping-industry jargon without a slip. Or both.
“Yeah, that took a minute,” says Dorman. “The jargon speech was done in a oner [continuous shot]. Came out of the lift, he’s disheveled, you see him address the audience … you just can’t miss.”
Season 2 boasts a 6-plus-minute oner in which John walks from a Paris subway to a bodega, gets in a shootout, then returns to the platform and gets on a train. It was done without permits. Because it had no edits, its accompanying song had to be crafted tightly to its contours.
“Writing a decent song that lasts more than six minutes was harder than getting that shot,” says Conrad, laughing.
Dorman adds, “That was amazing to watch, Steve watching the footage and then writing the song specifically to fit each moment. That was lightning in a bottle.
“To come from the train, walk all the way and do everything we had to do in the bodega, then walk all the way back and have a train arriving when we didn’t have control of the trains … It was just one of those moments where everything just came together.”
They kept trying their luck, continuing the unauthorized shot longer and longer down the platform.
“We could start at the bottom of the steps and probably not go to jail,” Conrad says, as Dorman giggles. “Then I realized it was like 3 in the morning; there was nobody there. We kept walking farther, then onto the platform, and a train came, and I said, ‘I bet we could do this.’
“Being left alone by the studio is a virtue in that we didn’t have to let them know on a daily basis what we were up to. They never expected us to get on a train without permission; I think they preferred not to know that.”
Conrad relishes the freedom afforded by the current appetite for long-form storytelling; all 18 episodes over two seasons concern the one mission.
“How long can you keep going with one story that continues to mount in its tension, its conflict, its rewards? You have to get something from A to B, but you’re going to be subjected to 1,000 little stresses. It becomes a weird little bargain with ourselves to see how far we can go,” he says.
“That’s what this slightly new art form of cable, serialized TV allows you to do. It’s like a double album.”
But “Patriot” isn’t all about cinematic tricks and plot twists. Even seemingly absurd elements such as the songs serve deeper reasons.
“The way the songs work with his wife — Alice just feels pain to understand this is what’s being asked of him. It’s too much, and he’s largely alone. That makes her tremendously sad,” says Conrad.
And therein lies one of the show’s organizing principles: That giving and giving when too much is asked is what makes John a real “Patriot.”
“That is a self-applied word that very few people deserve,” says the showrunner. “It sure gets used as currency in a pretty awful way. All you have to do is put that bumper sticker on your car, and you can’t be questioned. Well, of course, you can.”
One of his stated goals was to craft a filmmaking ensemble, in front of and behind the camera, dedicated to “making something good.” He says now that they have one, they hope to get a crack at a not-yet-greenlighted Season 3.
“One of the things I don’t think gets noticed about the show is it’s a fun show,” he says. “We built those little title cards; the music we use generally has momentum and pulse. We feel it can be invitational. There’s nothing really super-dense about the thing. We care about it a lot.”