The show: Homeland, Sundays on Showtime
The premise in ten words or less? CIA agent believes rescued American POW may have been turned.
Any good? Homeland is really, really good, something I was worried I wouldn't have the pleasure of saying about any new series this fall. It doesn't have an obscene budget or do anything particularly flashy to achieve its goodness, it just plain puts in the work, delivering a complex, fascinating story, well-defined and very well-acted characters, real stakes, real thrills, real edge, real mystery, and striking contemporary sociopolitical relevance in what it says about the invasion of privacy in the post-9/11 era.
The show is primarily about two people who only very briefly interact in the pilot: CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, and U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Band of Brothers' Damian Lewis, who has just been rescued after eight years of captivity in Iraq. Problem is that, while on site in Iraq before getting benched in Langley for her erratic behavior, Carrie got a tip that an American prisoner of war had been turned by Al-Qaeda, and Brody is the only American POW who has been found since then.
The government intends to utilize Brody as a media-friendly symbolic hero, so Carrie, left out in the cold, conducts a one-woman operation to discover if he's truly gone bad or not. While Brody either readjusts to domestic life with his now-alien family (including a young son with no memory of him whatsoever) or pretends to do so while plotting terrorist action, Carrie has cameras installed all through his house and holes up in her ratty apartment obsessively watching everything that goes down in the Brody household, from meals to conversations to Brody fucking his wife, eyes peeled for any hint of terrorist sympathy or activity. And things only get more fucked up from there!
The best way I can sum up the series is as 24 meets The Conversation meets The Manchurian Candidate, or perhaps simply as the thinking man's 24. That isn't a slam on 24, exactly – I've seen every episode of 24 in existence – but simply acknowledgement that even at its best that series was more or less a cartoon that existed entirely for the immediate base thrill. Homeland shares much with 24, including showrunner Howard Gordon, writer / producer Alex Gansa, composer Sean Callery, and season-spanning anti-terrorism storylines, but it's a more patient, more subtle, more intelligent series, one that approaches homeland security in a realistic manner and has no reliance on weekly gunfights or car chases to be nervy and thrilling.
Now, if you've seen Damian Lewis as Dick Winters in Band of Brothers, you don't need me to tell you that he's really good (on the other hand, if you've only seen him in Dreamcatcher, you probably do), giving a performance that befits the uncertain, mysterious nature of his character's true intentions. Firefly's Morena Baccarin brings wounded cautiousness edged with hope as Brody's wife Jessica, while Mandy Patinkin is gravitastic as Carrie's CIA superior Saul Berenson, who is less than approving of her methods. The rest of the cast also does good work, even the Brody kids, but the show's true secret weapon is Claire Danes as Carrie.
When I mentioned above that things just get more fucked up, what I was alluding to is the pilot's eventual reveal that Carrie is crazy. And when I say crazy, I don't mean neurotic or even irrationally intense like Jack Bauer (although she is the latter to some extent), I mean the character is literally crazy; she requires daily anti-psychotic medication to function in society. While not a true villain protagonist in the manner of Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad's Walter White – she believes everything she's doing to be for the good of her country, and as we don't yet know the truth of Brody, it could well be – Carrie Mathison is a dark, disturbing, fascinating figure, probably my favorite new TV character of the fall, and Danes is a revelation in the part.
Everything about Danes' performance is brilliantly edgy and tense, and, while spying on the Brody household for long, silent stretches, she says more with her eyes and body language than most other TV actors could with pages of monologues. Little things like her looking up when someone says her name, the way she makes eye contact, and her vaguely erratic movement are disquieting in this wonderfully subtle way I can't even define. There is absolutely no trace of Danes' angsty high schooler from My So-Called Life or celestial princess from Stardust here. It's a transformation that should sweep Emmy off its feet.
Also, I really hope that at some point during the season Carrie runs out of her anti-psychotic meds at a crucial juncture and can't get more, because, much as I appreciate the subtle tightrope of Danes' performance now, there's definitely a side of me that wants to see her dial it up to eleven for at least an episode.
There's still other subplots I've barely touched on, including Jessica Brody trying to hit undo on various parts of the life she made after assuming her long-missing husband was dead and the CIA's hunt for the show's big bad (and Osama bin Laden stand-in) Abu Nazir. Needless to say, this show is heaving with content from the word go, yet it still manages to keep it all feeling sleek and streamlined. It's equal and equally skillfully part character drama, espionage thriller, conspiracy thriller, and terrorism thriller. And in case you need some of that lowest common denominator good stuff to give you a final push, there's f-words, nudity, and a guy gets beaten to death.
I do have some concern about the future of Homeland, namely how and if they can sustain the show into a second season and beyond. They could resolve the stories of Brody and Abu Nazir and have Carrie confront a new terrorist threat ala 24, but that could get generic. Alternately, they could extend the mystery of Brody's allegiance beyond the first twelve episodes, but that could get tired (and Lost has made me permanently wary of series-spanning arcs). But while I'm nervously curious about what Homeland will look like a year from now, for the time being ignore my petty pessimism and watch it, because it's really damn good.
Will I watch again? They have me for at least the first season, guaranteed. Beyond that we'll have to play it by ear, but if the rest of the season is paced and structured in a way befitting the quality of the pilot and climaxes in a suitably unpredictable yet thrilling fashion, they'll have me for good.