(Prime) I think it’s fair to say that J.J. Abrams has probably had the biggest impact on serialized dramatic TV within the past 20 years. From ALIAS to LOST to FRINGE, everything boils down to conflict via -family dysfunction-, a conceit usually trotted out in films and not in TV because it’s traditionally been considered too soapy.
While PATRIOT isn’t one of the first spy shows to riff off of the spy family template of what Abrams wrought via ALIAS (if you haven’t seen ALIAS, you can start and end with its second season), it’s by far one of the most inventive. It’s a crackerjack of a thriller that, while its machinations are intentionally convoluted, the character work is the core of the show, and is a simply soulful as can be.
PATRIOT features John Tavner (Michael Dormer) as an unofficial CIA operative who operates under Tom Tavner, John father’s (the incomparable Terry O’Quinn), supervision. Occasionally John’s brother and Texas Congressman (Michael Chernus) gets roped in to John’s missions, simply to balance him out. While Tom realizes the stress he’s putting his son under, he feels it’s for the best of the nation (and also you sense that he revels in the control he has over his children) but he doesn’t quite realize just how frayed and worn down John is. To cope with matters, John sings about his missions Dylan-style on the street and in open-mic nights.
Yes, it’s a spy show and yes there are a lot of broken bones and MacGuffins changing hands, but those details matter as much to the audience as they do to John , which is to say: they don’t except for a means to an end-scene. It’s really about John’s dissonance and his breaking from reality, how the responsibilities his father piles onto him are breaking his humanity.
There’s an early scene in S01E08 (-L’Affaire Contre John Lakeman-, ~7:45-11:40) that I find an emblematic example of the show: John sits in the middle of a construction site as everyone involved in his life walk through, peppering him with expectations and disappointed laments while he sits there, framed by a concrete pipe, numb to their words. It’s one shot, camera static, as they slowly zoom in, the frame tightening on John’s back, slightly coiling the tension which builds, then whimpers away.
The first season of PATRIOT toys a lot with dialogue and very dry editing, but the second season features an explosion of virtuoso camera techniques and visuals. Sadly, a third season wasn’t meant to be, but I can only imagine the new ground it would have broken.