Perhaps fittingly in these political times, this latest addition to the espionage thriller genre takes a full-on absurdist approach. The result, judging by these opening three episodes, is a triumph. We have a standard spy thriller plot – Iran must be stopped from developing nuclear weapons – but a protagonist John Tavner (Michael Dorman) who’s a bizarre mix of child-like innocent, deadly assassin, unfeeling psychopath and guitar-strumming folk singer. Think Homeland somehow merged with the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis: action, intrigue, moody songs in folk clubs, surreal moments involving kayaks and mechanised bulls.
A factor introduced in the pilot episode, to which the show will hopefully return, is John’s penchant for drawing inspiration from his job for his song-writing, thus divulging classified operational secrets to rooms full of hipsters wearing lovely jumpers (John’s own jumper is particularly lovely).
“Keep Iran from activating / short range nuclear weapons / to destroy Israel,” he begins, before confessing: “I got some bad intelligence / shot an old male hotel room maid / who was just making the physicists’ beds.”
The plot, none the less solid for the show’s whimsical style, sees John in 2012 recruited by his father – senior CIA officer Tom Tavner (the wonderful Terry O’Quinn, best known as Locke in Lost) – to pass a huge sum of money to a pro-US Iranian politician in the hope that he will bribe his way to the presidency. To achieve this, John must take a “non-official cover” position within an oil pipeline company, who have dealings in Luxembourg, the one country on Earth where the Iranian politician can visit without arousing suspicion.
Needless to say, in the opening episode, things don’t quite go to plan with one piece of bad luck landing John, his dad and his semi-official agent brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), in an unholy mess. We see Tom, in the present day, giving testimony that hints exactly how unravelled his plan becomes.
For the two episodes following the opener, a sort of routine is established – John must stay on at the company, doing a job to which he is patently unsuited, juggling the attentions of his suspicious boss Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), co-worker and wannabe spy Dennis (Chris Conrad) and blackmailing security guard Jack Birdbath (Tony Fitzpatrick): “I have a stupid name,” reads his note, “but I am not stupid.”
That’s not to say its quirkiness is all-consuming; as with shows such as Better Call Saul, the surreal edge is kept in check, so that the characters are fully developed, emotional beings, meaning that, in amongst it all, there are moments of moving pathos. And, dividing its time between Milwaukee, Luxembourg and Amsterdam, the look of Patriot is as unique as its feel. All in all, with its gripping storyline, gallows humour and strangely likeable ensemble of characters, this is definitely a show to watch. Especially if you want to discover the answer to that all-important question: who’s the heavy dude with the kayak?
Season 1 of Patriot is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.