Given how long the War on Terror has plodded along, one might be surprised that only a smattering of shows have actually dipped their toes in the pool of that subject matter. Really, I can only think of three. There was Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” which had an outstanding first season followed by a disappointing sophomore effort. AMC had “Rubicon,” a very quiet show which also had a great first season (but for the finale — it should have ended one episode early) but had virtually no viewers and, thus, could not earn itself a second go-round. And there was, of course, “24,” which had eight seasons of mostly ridiculousness, with a few moments of actual quality here and there.
Looking at these three shows, however, it’s pretty easy to understand why we haven’t seen more antiterrorism-procedural shows. Unlike your “standard” procedural, these shows are about crimes and incidents that have yet to happen. So you really have three options. You can approach it as an understated look at the actual process of how folks try to keep things safe, the modicum-of-realism approach that “Rubicon” took. You will, of course, not have anyone watching your show because most viewers do not want understated realism. You can go the other extreme, dumping action, plot-trickery and shenanigans into a slow-cooker and letting it all just slowly simmer over. That’s your “24.” Sure, it was a mainstream success and even had a few legitimately entertaining seasons (thought I will remember it forever, above all else, for the awful business with Jack’s daughter getting chased by a fucking cougar). But we all knew it was a one-trick pony and even getting rid of the real time element, if a network tried to do a hyper-action anti-terror show, it would be painfully stuck in “24“‘s shadow and “reputation” (as it were).
And then there’s the approach “Sleeper Cell” took, taking a more understated approach while also trying to give us enough action and excitement to ratchet up the pulse of the show. Where “Rubicon” focused only on the “good guys,” “Sleeper Cell” wisely spent as much time with the “bad guys.” Sure, “24” did too, but it largely gave us cartoonish, “mwah-ha-ha!” mustache-twirling villains. “Sleeper Cell” tried to take us inside the mind of a terrorist. How do people get to the point where they’re willing to take their own life to take others with them, and how do people try to stay ahead of them and stop them? It was a creative and relatively rewarding approach, and one which Showtime decided it wanted more of. So it went out and hired some former “24” producers, gave them the reigns to adapt an Israeli show, and in return we get the (potentially) best new show of the fall, “Homeland.”
The premise of “Homeland” is a simple one, and if you’ve seen any of the teasers or commercials, you already know it — a Marine sniper, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who was assumed killed-in-action in the early days of of the war in Iraq, has actually been a POW, and thanks to some good CIA’ing, he’s been rescued and gets to come home a war hero. Only thing is, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has it on inside dirt from a now-dead Iraqi informant that Sgt. Brody might have been turned bad in all his time in captivity. And so we’re presented with a very simple, on its face, cat-and-mouse game.
But it’s not as simple as it seems because the show hasn’t made either character black-and-white. From what we learn in the pilot, Nicholas has definitely come home with some baggage and doesn’t appear to be telling the truth about some of his in-country captivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, just yet, that he’s a sleeper agent with plans to do Bad Business. But it looks like we’re going, over the season, to get quite a bit of understanding about where his head’s at, be it broken vet, patriot turned terrorist, or something else entirely. Carrie, meanwhile, may be more than one card short of a full deck — she’s unhealthily thin (that may just be Danes succumbing to Hollywood but, at least for this role, it serves an artistic purpose), takes mood fixer-upper drugs and, based on one piece of questionable evidence, immediately dives into her self-appointed mission against Brody with a questionable amount of determination and an illegal amount of activity. Late in the first episode, Carrie is having a moment with her CIA mentor and confidant, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and she tries to win the argument in a way that, in the moment, is wholly inappropriate and just wrong. Saul is appalled (as is the viewer), and while she recognizes Saul’s disdain, she doesn’t seem to really grasp how close to the edge she is.
For something like this to work, the performances really need to be up to the task. It should come as a surprise to no one that Lewis is aces, and then some. Whatever the ultimate fate of Nicholas, it’s going to be fun watching Lewis get us there. And while the premiere didn’t quite explain Saul’s role in the CIA as well as it needs to at some point, Patinkin was pitch perfect. He usually is.
Coming into the show, I was more worried about the actressin’ than the actin’. Morena Baccarin plays Nicholas’ wife and, understandably, she’s in a conflicted spot after eight years — she loves her husband, but she long ago assumed him dead and had begun to move on with her life. It’s a seemingly rote theme in this type of story, and I wasn’t sure if Baccarin could do anything interesting with it — while I adored her on “Firefly,” I found the performance a little underwhelming, and it was impossible to judge how much of her performance on “V” was crappy writing and an intentionally cold lizard queen versus mailing-it-in. But she’s pretty great, readily sliding back and forth from the relief and joy and concern and awkwardness that comes with this situation. I suspect dark times are ahead for the reunited couple, and I think Baccarin and Lewis are going to make it really unpleasant to watch (in a good way),
But this show really lives and dies with Danes’ performance and, luckily, she’s also great. I’ve been a fan of Danes’ for a long time, but for some reason I’ve never thought of her as a particularly complex actress. Here, though, she’s acting her ass off. This is a meaty role, but it’s also one that could be easily one-noted. Danes gives her performance the perfect level of nuance so that you don’t particularly like Carrie, and you know she’s not quite “right” as a person, but that doesn’t mean she’s not right in what she’s doing.
Of course, the big question is whether she is, in fact, right — has Nicholas Brody been turned into a traitor to his country? And this simple question, packaged up inside these great performances, is what makes “Homeland” fascinating. “24” was all balls, virtually no brain. “Rubicon” was just brain. And “Sleeper Cell” largely floated somewhere between the balls and brain (liver? let’s call it the liver). But “Homeland” looks like it’s going to bounce back and forth and all over the place, giving us a bit of everything. To be sure, we’ve recently been burned by an excellent pilot that flamed out hardcore (*cough* “The Killing” *cough*), but in retrospect, there were warning signs. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ll get fooled again, but I think “Homeland” is the real deal, at least for one season.
It’s unfortunate that most of you won’t get to see “Homeland,” if ever, until it makes it to DVD and streaming outlets sometime after its initial run is over. Given its strong numbers, however (it was the best debut of a new series Showtime has ever had), it will surely make it to those other outlets. In the meantime, the first episode is available for viewing on Showtime’s website, so you can at least whet your appetite. And those of you with Showtime can also catch the first episode On Demand and on a bunch of the Showtime stations. Do yourself a favor and watch it. It’ll wash away the taste of all the network premieres.
“Homeland” airs Sunday nights on Showtime, repeating heaps of times all week long.