Once upon a time on a network called AMC, there was a little show known as Rubicon. Set at the fictional intelligence agency API, the show’s objective was to create an arcing story of government conspiracy, while at the same time showing the toll that gathering intelligence to prevent said conspiracy took on the men and women involved. It had excellent performances by the likes of James Badge Dale, Arliss Howard and Michael Christofer, cinematography by the inestimable Michael Slovis that made New York look better than ever, and captured some of the most wonderfully atmospheric paranoia ever put on television. Tragically, the show’s ratings were low even by AMC standards, and after a disappointing finale most fans have retconned out of existence it was canceled after one season.
I’m mentioning this largely because Rubicon happens to be one of my favorite shows of the last few years, a show whose cancellation came when I was first considering the idea of becoming a TV critic and which scarred my heart in a fashion that will never heal. So when I say that Showtime’s new drama Homeland goes a long way towards filling that void for me, you can take that as one of the strongest recommendations I can give to a new show. While tonally it feels more urgent than Rubicon‘s slow burn, Homeland‘s pilot is still one of the strongest of the fall, and its second and third episodes prove that it’s assembled an excellent cast and is presenting a story involving as any of the goings on of API.
The driving event of Homeland is a Special Forces team’s discovery of Marcus Brody (Damian Lewis), a Marine sniper MIA for the last eight years. His rescue is treated as a rousing success everyone save Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), an abrasive CIA agent who has been shackled to a desk after making one too many decisions outside her superior’s approval. Latching onto an old piece of intel that al-Qaeda would attempt to turn a POW for an attack on American soil, she convinces herself Brody is actually a mole and strives to convince her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) of the same. Brody, for his part, seems to be simply trying to readjust to live home with his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin), but is having some periodic flashbacks that are making Carrie’s concerns seem very well-founded.
I won’t belabor the Rubicon comparisons going forward as it’s not fair to this show, but suffice to say in its execution the show captures a lot of the things I liked about the way Rubicon depicted about government conspiracy and intelligence gathering. In her hunt for proof that Brody is more than what he seems, Carrie goes to every extreme she can – chartering a freelance surveillance team to bug his house, and then spending hours on her couch watching his daily life as everything around her turns into background noise. Not only does it get to how boring intelligence can be (nicely described by her friend/co-conspirator Virgil as he tries to find its entertainment value) but it depicts just how much of a toll this focus takes on the people involved. Even when it moves to a more immediate threat – when an asset of Carrie’s reveals she’s seen the terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir – we see the issues of a shoestring budget and how for all their efforts the “good guys” seem to remain one step behind.
But what distinguishes Homeland to me as an intelligence story is the fact that it’s a story that feels very contemporary, and one that deals as much with the big picture of intelligence as the nitty-gritty of gathering it. In the second episode, when Saul flexes a long-buried secret to get a judge* to provide a surveillance warrant, there’s a half-hearted smirk on the former’s part when he acknowledges how many of these have been issued in the past ten years. Senior CIA members discuss the problems of keeping the War on Terror present in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, and discuss how to leverage Brody’s heroic story into political gains – a move the latter doesn’t want any part of. The show recognizes the games that have to be played to keep the wheels turning, and is unafraid to make those games seem seedy, a move that only seems to amplify the stakes of what’s happening.
*A judge played by Michael McKean of all people, in a welcome cameo appearance.
And of course, it helps that Homeland has one of the best starting casts of any major drama I’ve seen in recent years. Lewis is so far the main attraction – I happen to be coming to this show at the same time I’m wrapping up my first watch of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and he’s bringing exactly the same dignity and haunted quality to the role of damaged soldier that he brought in his terrific performance as Richard Winters. He’s an actor who can do so much by simply starting off into the distance, and he’s been terrific as he deals with both the joy of returning to his family and friends and the clear disconnect he has at trying to fit into the world again. The show’s very cleverly avoiding defining whether or not he’s a sleeper agent – sometimes it appears he’s suffering from PTSD, other times he’s rebelling against some buried compulsion – and Lewis is playing just the right levels to keep that fact ambiguous.
Claire Danes, who I’ve never had the time to appreciate in her roles before, is equally strong as Carrie Matheson. As an agent, she’s clearly smart and tenacious enough to make the connections she does, but with each episode it becomes more and more apparent that she’s sacrificed her personal life and her patience in pursuit of those goals. Every time she’s in a briefing, or doing anything more than sitting staring the surveillance system hooked up to Brody’s house, I find myself holding my breath as it’s entirely possible she could explode at a moment’s notice*. She’s become one of the most unpredictable characters on television, and Danes invests her with an unnatural intensity that makes her quest very hard to look away from.
*Due to both the pressures she operates under, and also due to her suffering from a mental disorder only a few steps removed from schizophrenia. I’m not sure I buy that she’d be able to hide this disorder from the brass at Langley, but it does work well for the tension of the program.
Danes and Lewis have yet to share too much screen time – save one increasingly uncomfortable debriefing-turned-interrogation – but their supporting players are filling the gap nicely. Mandy Patinkin has proven time and again how good he is in a mentoring role (he was the only part of Dead Like Me I still liked after six episodes*) and he fits seamlessly as a CIA elder statesman, much in the vein of Robert Redford in Spy Game or Brian Cox in The Bourne Supremacy. When you see him try to hold Carrie back and point her in the right direction, you can buy the genuine affection that he has for her – and when she pushes too far and he pushes back, the pain on his face is very visible. And Baccarin, now thankfully free of V‘s chains, is giving an excellent performance as a woman who’s trying to get back to her old life after having already made the decision to move on.
*I doubt this is a show given to any form of meta-commentary, but I find myself expecting him to call Carrie “Peanut” at some point.
In fact, the scenes with Brody’s home life might be some of the most compelling that the show does, depicting how much changes in eight years and what happens when a family goes from moving on to an attempted return to status quo. There’s a lot of simmering tension being depicted here, from the relationship between Jessica and her daughter to the still-concealed love triangle between Brody, Jessica and his best friend Mike. There’s as much of a slow burn here as there is on the intelligence side of things, and the scenes here feel even more raw and human – particularly when Homeland takes advantage of its pay cable environment to depict how damaged the sense of intimacy between Jessica and Brody is following the latter’s eight years of captivity.
It’s scenes like that – so compelling and yet so hard to watch – that have me hooked on Homeland only three episodes in. It’s a contemporary spy story that feels relatively fresh, one that understands its narrative structure and has been using it to deliver some of the most nerve-wracking moments of the season, from some of the strongest actors working today. If this is where new Showtime head David Nevins wants to direct the network – after years of dwelling on formula like Nurse Jackie and The Big C – I can’t endorse that highly enough. This is the best new drama on TV this season, hands down, and one whose unpredictability only ensures I’m going to keep watching to the end.
- Speaking of Showtime’s faith in the show, it’s already been picked up for a second season after delivering strong ratings and critical praise. So already it’s got something over Rubicon – we’ll have to see how it manages to turn its conspiracy into one with potential past 13 episodes.
- That said, there is one thing I do not like about this show: the opening titles are awful. In less than a minute, it features clips presidents discussing the fight against terrorism, Carrie’s quotes from the pilot, random jazz trumpet footage and what appear to be photos of young Carrie intercut with random maze images. It’s a schizophrenic, utterly unappetizing tonal shift between the opening and the first scene, and I wish they’d find a reason to change it. (Though if it turns out there’s encoded messages giving away the conspiracy, that’s going to irk me.)
- I promised to limit the Rubicon comparisons going forward, but I might not have to drop them entirely: former showrunner Henry Bromell is listed as a consulting producer on Homeland. Despite his role in the finale that we all agree didn’t happen, his influence helped guide Rubicon to a much stronger position, and I feel comfortable with his hand brushing the tiller here. Maybe we can get Miles, Grant and Tanya in to do some consulting on the Abu Nazir matter?
- I can’t be the only one who finds it hilarious that the stars of Life and My So-Called Life are appearing on a show together. Come on, back me up here.