Beginning immediately yet coincidentally in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, 24 for years played with the idea of new atrocities being committed on U.S. soil. And while that Fox thriller at times put an American (if not downright presidential) face on the architects of such treason, Showtime’s Homeland compellingly boils the drama down to this: What if a celebrated American war hero was in fact our country’s next big threat? What if a jihad was led by one of us?
Premiering this Sunday at 10/9c (following Dexter‘s Season 6 opener), Homeland in fact features two 24 alumni — Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa — among its executive producers, and their propensity to inject tension into cat-and-mouse games and even something as passive as video surveillance shines through. The drama stars Damian Lewis (of NBC’s promising yet short-lived Life) as Sgt. Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine who is rescued from captivity in Iraq eight years after he was presumed dead, and then receives a hero’s welcome upon his return to the States.
Emmy and Golden Globe winner Claire Danes (Temple Grandin) plays Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer who upon hearing the Brody news cannot forget the intel supplied months prior by an Iraqi man she visited abroad in prison: “An American prisoner of war has been turned.”
Is Brody that POW? Has he returned home with the most insidious of agendas? Homeland is in no rush to offer a crystal clear answer but instead confides in viewers the occasional clue that could be interpreted as damning, while Carrie is vexed by vagaries as she pours all of her resolve into proving her theory. That steely determination is undermined by the brilliant operative’s Jack Bauer-style inclination to skirt the occasional law and even fib to superiors, including longtime mentor Saul Berenson (Emmy winner Mandy Patinkin).
There’s also the none-too-small matter of Carrie secretly treating a condition not specifically identified as bipolar disorder with antipsychotic drugs she acquires on the sly — an Achilles heel that someone within her small circle soon discovers and questions.
Brody meanwhile comes home to his wife Jessica (Firefly‘s Morena Baccarin), who in the years since his “passing” found solace in the arms of his best friend and superior, Capt. Mike Faber (Men in Trees‘ Diego Klattenhoff) — and yet not with quite enough discretion to keep at least one critical person in the dark. The marrieds have two children who get pulled into the “war hero” spotlight with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
In a fall TV season that has delivered many a freshman drama saddled with an “asterisk” — Terra Nova‘s characters are too stock, Pan Am is too glossy, Person of Interest too stonefaced — Homeland quickly establishes itself to be the best of the bunch. The gravity and tension of the situation with Brody (if there is one) comes off as palpably real and never over-the-top, while the performances are nearly across-the-board aces. Danes is superb as a top-of-her-class CIA officer compromised only by her personal weaknesses, coming across at the same time whip-smart and borderline manic. Whatever Carrie’s psych issues may be, they’re dealt with deftly, such as the way she watches surveillance video of the Brodys’ more intimate moments a few seconds (OK, minutes) longer than she perhaps should. And she seems to recognize that.
As Brody, Lewis wisely plays it right down the middle, neither giving us a chest-thumping, publicity grabbing poster boy for the War on Terror nor telegraphing any of the character’s more questionable moments. He is given some very hard scenes to play — both in flashback as a tortured POW and in the present day as a man profoundly scarred by his experiences — and there’s not a false moment to be found.
Among the supporting cast, Patinkin’s Saul is sage and gruffly suffers no fools, especially when it comes to his longtime padwan Carrie, while Baccarin communicates the confused feelings of a woman who is overjoyed to have her husband home yet soon realizes — especially in an unsettling Episode 3 scene — that he perhaps has never felt so far away.
Homeland is not perfect. Three episodes in, Klattenhoff’s Capt. Farber is given little to do besides cradle the hat of his dress greens as he covets his suddenly estranged lover. There’s an early subplot involving a Saudi prince’s (gorgeous) girlfriend-for-hire that telegraphs its punches a bit. And as with fellow newbies Terra Nova and FX’s American Horror Story, the cast of characters includes one of “those” teenage kids who seemingly exist only to bring everyone down, though Brody’s daughter Dana is not without her surprises.
But as I said earlier, in a fall season rife with new dramas that come with (sometimes crippling) caveats, Homeland is the one to make a point to check out, even on these very busy Sunday nights.
Watch the extended trailer for Homeland here, then tell us if you plan to tune in!