A composer-creator puts a soulful spin on the espionage genre.
It doesn't take long for Patriot, an offbeat dark comedy on Amazon Prime, to prove it's no James Bond spy thriller.
Not by a longshot. In the dark-night-of-the-soul pilot, agent John Tavner smokes a joint and starts confessing his spy crimes while performing folk songs on an acoustic guitar. Sitting on a park bench in Amsterdam, the haunted agent, played with dead-eyed perfection by Kiwi actor Michael Dorman, plaintively sings:
"I got some really bad intelligence, shot an old male hotel maid who was just makin' the physicist's bed… I'm showing several signs of increasing mental instability..."
Though the singing agent trope might seem like a gimmick, it's handled artfully, and the songs' soulful lyricism brings new life to a well-trod landscape. Now with two seasons completed, creator–executive producer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) says making the spy a folk singer has allowed for a fresh take.
"With music, the more honest it is, the stronger it is," he says. A longtime musician, Conrad wrote all the show's original songs. "It's also true of novelistic writing — although it's probably not true of the spy genre," he adds. "But I thought, 'Why can't it be? And let's see if it could be.'"
The show's byzantine plot skips seamlessly between Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Paris, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. — a sort of Coen brothers/Wes Anderson/Jason Bourne mashup that somehow feels wholly original. As ennui and guilt drive the increasingly broken agent's need for creative self-expression, the folk songs are a symptom of his inner unrest.
"I feel like that's so true of all of us — that we're two things at once all the time, and it's the cause of so many of our problems," says Conrad, who directed most of the episodes. "It's where the tension of our real lives comes from."
The music not only serves as a stress valve for agent Tavner, it's a great device for delivering exposition. Conrad also believes it's an effective way to hook an audience. That's why the show features original songs performed by Dorman, as well as tunes by Bob Dylan, the Clash, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks and others. The Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot" plays during the opening credits in season two.
"Music is a way people connect in life so easily," Conrad says. "If you do that with your show, it just makes it easier to care about. You can care about the show because it cares about the things you like."
For season two, Amazon gave Conrad the resources to record in Nashville. So instead of playing his confessional folk tunes solo in public, now Tavner just hears himself, but backed by a full band.
"The songs, they come and they sit in his head, where he's just driving himself forward by hearing these songs," Conrad says. "It's like that Monty Python opening, where the head cracks open and all this stuff comes out."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019