Around the time when Amazon Prime came at me with yet another (my 4th? 5th?) free trial, this seemingly little-known black comedy was recommended to me as a cross between Letterkenny and Flight of the Conchords. That assessment’s not wrong, but I found that Patriot also straddles an interesting middle ground between the sad soul searching of Barry and the slicing satire of Killing Eve. Between the cinematography, the acting and the dialogue styles, there’s a lot to unpack and enjoy here.
John is a sad-sack assassin working for unspecified top-secret American security interests, but as we learn from his father/handler in the first episode, he’s been in a pretty dark place lately. Like a beaten-down golden retriever with relentless ball drive, John won’t quit until he completes his mission, and he’s similar to Barry in that he formed his identity around his cold ability to destroy anyone who gets in the way of his goal. But where Barry’s acts of violence stem from self preservation, John’s obedience to his job doesn’t seem commensurate to his love for his father or for his country. Instead, his nihilistic perseverance feels tinged with the vague hope that one of these crazy tasks just might kill him. And he always works alone, a solitary hero whose approach to his job parallels the steadfast way he attempts to manage his trauma. John won’t admit when he’s in pain, physical or existential, and when his family and friends ask how he’s doing, his typical answer is “pretty good.”
Watching enough shows about hired killers has given me the impression that this is a common occupational hazard. But where Barry uses acting to escape from his ethically taxing job and empty personal life, John narrates and channels the absurdity of his circumstances through song. His intro ditty really sets the tone, as does that fuzzy Kurt Cobain-on-Unplugged sweater:
I watched all 18 episodes of both seasons in three days. Season one was delightful, but season two really oomphs up the show’s strongest and strangest elements in the most satisfying way. My biggest compliment to the show is the top-notch characterization all around. Everyone is weird, and even side characters have something interesting to say. A good portion of the show is spoken in French with subtitles, but the writing has so much more clever dialogue and humor than I’m used to seeing in the foreign language dramas I’ve watched of late. (No shade here, it just seems like a lot of Nordic noir either translates as campy or was never intended to make me laugh.)
When you’re not focused on the weird one-liners and original songwriting, the distinct camera work commands your attention with big, wide angle shots that zoom in slowly over the characters’ dialogue, a little reminiscent of Homecoming. I also loved the long scenes where the camera simply follows behind John as he moves through the streets of Amsterdam on foot or bike, narrating his thoughts and plans and feelings in folk song form.
Other wide angle shots close in on John’s expressions as he quietly contemplates the situations he finds himself in, and his stoicism cracks the slightest bit. John will complete his mission at any cost to himself, and it’s fascinating to watch him wordlessly struggling with his own demise by a thousand cuts and concussions. Michael Dorman does a terrific job of conveying an entire story with his face, and aside from his delightfully deadpan songs, he doesn’t need much dialogue to communicate John’s fraying mental state.
While dealing with the fallout of his bungled mission, John compromises his secrets to a series of incredibly odd characters who cross his path, most of whom start out wanting to blackmail him until they find out what he’s going through — then they just want to help him and be his friend. The friendships John forms in his messed-up line of work are sweet in a twisted, ridiculous way, and it works. (Dennis is definitely the best kook in the bunch).
The general tone of the show stays dark and serious, since they’re dealing with international political security risks and all, but once in awhile the dialogue breaks into weird banter, vivid tangents or funky word play, and offers a fun juxtaposition to the heaviness of John’s depression as he struggles with the consequences of his clusterfuck mission. Patriot has no qualms about injecting a little absurdity into its black ops plot lines, breaking the tension while reminding us of the literal farce that is international covert spy missions and subversive intervention in the governments of other states. It’s as heavy as it sounds, but I guarantee this show will make you laugh out loud.
Conclusion: Patriot is one of the funniest black comedies you’ve never heard of, and the only one that will teach you about accordion pimps.