Patriot. Available now on Amazon.com.
Taken. NBC. Monday, February 27, 10 p.m.
One of the axioms of the intelligence business is that moles can usually be found in pairs, lending one another support. Whether that's actually true in real life (since the Brits ferreted out Kim Philby and his buddies in the early 1950s, most spies uncovered in the West have been singletons), it seems ironclad in television: If you find a Homeland or a Man From U.N.C.L.E., then The Americans or Mission: Impossible will surely be lurking nearby.
So it is that another pair of spy shows debut this week. Amazon's Patriot is a droll farce, an espionage version of Fargo. And NBC's Taken is what you might guess, a bloodless 17th-generation clone of the Liam Neeson films about a vengeful CIA veteran, "bloodless" of course being a metaphorical description of the show's spirit and certainly not its special effects.
There's much that's odd about Patriot, starting with the fact that Amazon aired the pilot episode in 2015 and is only just now getting around to adding the other nine episodes. Add to that false start the utter disdain for punchlines by creator-writer-director Steve Conrad (He wrote the screenplay for the Will Smith comedy-drama The Pursuit Of Happyness), and the decision to cast the show with mostly unknowns, the single exception being Terry O'Quinn of Lost. Add that all up and it's a wonder that Patriot ever made it to the screen.
Happily, it did. Patriot follows the misadventures of a family of CIA spies that's trying to buy an election in Iran; the CIA has feared the leading candidate since he ruthlessly trampled American competitors in Battleship tournaments as a teenager. The lead operative is family scion John Tavner (Australian television star Michael Dorman), who specializes in spying while working as a businessman rather than as a diplomat, a practice known as non-official cover, or NOC.
But after a rough year during which, among other things, he shot a hotel maid he mistook for a foreign agent, John's approaching terminal burnout. He's taken to performing folk songs about his intelligence missions at coffee houses—imagine Burl Ives singing about overthrowing the government of Guatemala—and his skills have dulled.
He can barely pronounce some of the jargon he must use while posing as a petroleum engineer, much less understand them, and his approaches to both friends and enemies lack a certain finesse. His recruiting pitch to a potential agent, standing in front of a urinal, starts out, "Can you not pee for a moment?"
John's family is loyally supporting him in hopes his melancholy will lift. Dad Tom (O'Quinn), the head of the CIA, pushes for more tasteful decoration of the safe houses his son must use, while amiable if mildly cloddish brother Ed (Michael Chernus, Orange Is the New Black), a newbie congressman who still dabbles in the spy game, dispenses helpful career tips. "Keep it safe," he advises as he hands John a suitcase full of money to buy the election. "We can't just send more bags. It's not the 1980s."
Banter and repartee are almost completely absent from the relentlessly deadpan Patriot, and to the extent that it has punchlines at all, they're usually delivered by a camera rather than a character. A tense scene that starts with a character's eyes intently studying a video pulls back to reveal it's a YouTube do-it-yourself clip on how to fashion a hangman's noose with which to kill yourself. A panning shot of the homicide bullpen of the Luxembourg police department, which has been tasked with investigating some of John's murders, shows desks filled with nothing but women—it's the dumping ground for affirmative-action female hires, because nobody ever gets murdered in Luxembourg. There are laughs aplenty in Patriot, but they're delivered at the mellifluous pace of old whiskey rather than the slam-bang of a Belushian beer can crushed against the forehead.
There's plenty of slam-bang in Taken, NBC's distant prequel to the trilogy of films, but the result is less a buzz than a headache. Clive Standen, lately of the History Channel's Vikings, plays a twenty-something version of the promiscuously homicidal CIA knuckle-dragger Bryan Mills.
Taken purports to show what set Mills on the path to being the vigilante scourge of terrorists and narcotraffickers around the world. The answer clearly is that Luc Bresson, who wrote all the films and is one of the executive producers of the TV show, can't come up with another story. Given the fates of Mills' daughter, ex-wife and various random female acquaintances in the films, it is scarcely a spoiler alert at this point to reveal that Mills' sister has an inauspicious encounter with a swarthy brute in the opening minutes of the show and he seeks redress using a variety of sharp and/or explosive objects.
This version of Taken is rather more showily cynical than the films, with CIA bosses sitting around listening as hidden microphones relay the approach of armed-to-the-fang drug hitmen who plan to torture and kill Mills. "Shouldn't we, like, warn him?" wonders one: "Don't we have a moral duty?" Retorts Jennifer Beals, the Flashdance babe now graduated to a role as hardboiled spook-in-chief: "Okay, now you're boring me." No duh.