TV: Homeland (Season 1)

I went into season one of Homeland with extremely high expectations, which is unfortunate, because now that I’ve finished it I feel like I’m comparing it against my hopes rather than what’s actually on the screen. Is it deserving of all the accolades? I think so. But with its high-profile cast and writing staff (which includes the great Henry Bromell, among others), I was expecting to have my mind blown. Instead, I merely got this superb spy drama.

Based on an Israeli series called Prisoners of War, Homeland stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, an ambitious CIA officer with field experience in Iraq. On her last day overseas, an informant makes a final confession before his execution: “An American POW has been turned.” Shortly thereafter, U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued after eight years of captivity. Coincidence? Mathison doesn’t think so, and works tirelessly to convince her superiors — including her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and her politically angling boss David Estes (David Harewood) — that Brody is a double agent for the terrorists. But lack of evidence and political pressure make her pursuit of the truth an uphill climb, and her struggles are complicated by bipolar disorder, a medical condition she’s concealed from the Agency and that constantly threatens to upend her efforts.

Meanwhile, Brody’s return throws the life of his family into chaos. After years of waiting, wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) has finally moved on and is in a clandestine relationship with Brody’s best friend Mike (Diego Klattenhoff). And Brody’s kids barely remember him. His resurrection leads to considerable turmoil for everyone involved.

Homeland has all the tools. Solid production values, smartly plotted scripts, a well realized concept, and a season-long arc that’s well planned and flawlessly executed. But the core strength of the show is the acting, which is just spectacular. The characters aren’t particularly unique or interesting — marine, loose-cannon agent, mentor, boss, mother, best friend — but everybody involved is superb. Far and away the best is Damian Lewis, who delivers an intense, conflicted performance that is every bit deserving of his Emmy Award. Claire Danes nearly equals him in her own Emmy-winning turn; she has a few moments I wasn’t entirely onboard with, but overall she delivers a compellingly manic performance. Mandy Patinkin is the show’s glue and backbone, and one of the more interesting characters. He’s overshadowed by his flashier co-stars, but it’s a subtle, nuanced role and Patinkin delivers it with class. And Morena Baccarin has never been better than she is here — although sadly she isn’t given much to do.

If I have a major complaint about the show, it’s the gender politics. There have been more egregious examples of poor handling of female characters on television, of course, but I was still disappointed. Danes is excellent in a meaty role, but sadly Carrie Mathison is not afforded the same agency and formidability as her male co-workers on this show — and certainly not as much as the male stars of similar spy shows. At first, I was expecting a female Jack Bauer (from 24), but would Bauer be written this way — make these types of decisions or mistakes? I don’t think so. I have to think she was writen to gender. That’s certainly true of Baccarin’s Jessica Brody, who is defined solely by her relationships to the men in her life and her children. She has no identity outside of her motherly wifeness. It’s a waste of the actress, who shines when she’s given the material — she’s more credible and steely here than ever before, but her role is just bland and utterly expected.

As for the spy mechanics, I was suitably engaged throughout. The season-long plot is a precisely executed puzzler with all the nuts and bolts locked down. If I came away at all disappointed, it’s because much of it felt familiar to me — which is probably a product of my relentless immersion in this type of material. I kept drawing parallels: it’s a more patient and less preposterous 24, a more accessible and viewer friendly Sleeper Cell, a more accelerated and commercial Rubicon. All these shows, I think, preceded Homeland in quirkier, more innovative ways, which lead me to feel like Homeland is derivative: a perfected and distilled spy drama, but descended from more groundbreaking stuff.

But that feels like so much grousing, because really it is a well crafted, absorbing show, and I quite enjoyed the ride. Viewers less steeped in the genre won’t share many of my more obscure reactions, and I’m glad to see an intelligent, patient spy drama finding an enthusiastic audience. I have every intention of following the series further, especially for Lewis and Patinkin. When all is said and done, I suspect my recommendation would be much more enthusiastic if I hadn’t been expecting perfection from the get-go. Stupid expectations!

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