I like to think that some devotee of Charles Dickens, back in 1852-1853, decided to purchase and set aside each of the twenty monthly installments of Bleak House — easily my favorite Dickens story — so that he or she could eventually “binge read” the novel in its entirety.
Nothing new under the sun, as they say.
It’s common to observe that we’re living through a Golden Age of television. To be sure, we’ve come a long, long way from Three’s Company and The Price is Right. I’m a fan of the actor and comedian John Hodgman, who likes to say that it’s just a matter of time until your corner coffee shop or dry cleaner starts producing and streaming shows online. The dam has burst, and new series seem to appear weekly from a head-spinning number of sources: HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Showtime, FX, BBC, USA Network, Starz, Disney, et al.
Given the competition among the streaming services, the sheer volume of new content, and the virtuous cycle of high-quality television sustaining a market for more and more daring offerings — well, there’s some really good stuff that comes out of all that.
Take Amazon’s new series Patriot. I’m fairly certain that I’ve never seen anything like it.
As aside: I took a couple of creative writing classes in college from Jerome Charyn, about whom I’ve previously written here at Traces. Joyce Carol Oates was on the same writing faculty at the time. I remember a discussion we had about her, in which we all marveled at the size of her oeuvre: book after book after book. Charyn said that for Oates, all it took was finding her “voice” in that first sentence. Once she found that voice, it was off to the races.
I mention that because if I were asked to identify the particular genius of Patriot — at the center of which is a secret agent barely sustaining the weight of his suicidal unhappiness, his puppy dog of a brother, and their loving but ruthless spymaster of a father — I’d have to say that the writers and directors of Patriot found a voice or tone that television hasn’t heard before. And they succeed in carrying it through in brilliant fashion from the first scene to the last.
I’d describe it this way: a velvet glove of wry whimsy (or maybe whimsical wryness) over an iron hand. The wry whimsy is pure delight: I can’t tell you how many times I smiled or guffawed, shook my head, and muttered, “Oh my God, that is so perfect.” As for the iron hand, it comes smashing down on corporate culture, male preening, U.S. hegemony, the rat race, transactional relationships, and so much more.
Still, there is one question or theme in Patriot that takes it from just immensely entertaining and occasionally provocative to another level. I’m not giving too much away to say that it’s this: What do we, as individuals, owe our families? And they us?
That’s signaled by Patriot‘s opening credits, characteristically oddball and unnerving: home video showing children up to mischief (tricks on motorbikes, leaping into midair, smoking a cigarette, shooting a rifle, etc.) over this haunting song by Vashti Bunyan, from 1966:
“But suddenly now, I know where I belong.”
Patriot is weird, sometimes unnerving (spoiler alert: John, the protagonist, assassinates people), and intelligent. I haven’t read any reviews, but I’m guessing that viewers either love it or passionately hate it.
Put me in the first category.