From that shelf of words most often used to describe hard-to-peg TV shows, let’s go with “melancholy” and “quirky” for Amazon’s “Patriot,” a 10-episode dramedy about a depressed undercover spy (Michael Dorman) sent on the complicated, morally bereft mission of fixing a mistake made by his intelligence-officer father, which, in a roundabout way, involves a scheme to foil Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Patriot” is a trip-wired, surprisingly clever series. It’s the perfect example of a show that should go on your list of shows to finally watch someday.
What’s that? You say your list already has 49 shows on it, some of which you meant to watch three years ago? Well, that’s just how it is now: They keep making ’em, critics keep favorably reviewing ’em and you wonder if you’ll ever leave the house again.
Sorry if this sounds a tad defeated. “Patriot’s” blue mood might have rubbed off, particularly Dorman’s effectively hangdog portrayal of John Tavner, a reluctant spy if ever there was one. Ashamed of a murder he accidentally committed in the line of duty, he’s been getting high in Amsterdam and performing acoustic alt-country ballads in cafes at night — songs strummed out on the fly, with lyrics that could be considered breaches of national security.
John’s father, Tom Tavner (“Lost’s” Terry O’Quinn), a former congressman who is now the State Department’s director of intelligence, calls on his son to help with an Iran-related mission, despite the misgivings of John’s wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), who worries about her husband’s state of mind. The mission first involves sending John to Milwaukee, where, under assumed cover, he’s supposed to talk his way into a desk job at a pipe-manufacturing company — which he gets, only after pushing a rival candidate in front of a bus.
Accompanying the pipe executives to a sales meeting in Luxembourg, John carries out his real mission, but not without some hiccups, including committing a murder that gets the attention of a local police detective, Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim), who determinedly tracks the crime-scene clues back to Milwaukee.
Although creator-writer Steve Conrad (whose screenwriting credits include “The Pursuit of Happyness ” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) has made a show that has its own peculiar look and feel, he has also more or less replicated the effect of a Joel and Ethan Coen film, in which a touch of cruelty and dry wit can effectively mesh. What he’s missing is the Coen brothers’ mastery of momentum.
The pipe company provides a number of extra characters, including John’s boss, Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), a recovering alcoholic who takes an instant dislike to the new hire; and a snoopy colleague, Dennis (Chris Conrad), who is all too eager to get involved in international espionage. There is also John’s younger brother, Edward (Michael Chernus), who recently won Tom’s vacated seat in Congress, yet is clueless to the spycraft happening all around him. Between Milwaukee, Luxembourg, Washington and a few flash-forwards and -backwards in chronology (the show spans a period from 2011 to 2016), it’s a lot to keep track of right away, even if this golden television era has made us all experts in narrative sprawl.
Trying too hard to play it ultracool, “Patriot’s” first few episodes are overloaded with distractions and flourishes; the show takes its own sweet (but enjoyable) time to find its stride. And viewers are running low these days on that kind of patience, even if “Patriot” is worth indulging.
Patriot (10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Amazon. (Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)