Until the advent of cable TV the United States had the most facile, puritanical television in the western world. Many believe the turning point came with the premiere of The Sopranos in 1999, on the HBO network. Suddenly the Americans had produced a brilliant drama series filled with black humour, sex, violence and four letter words. Just like life.
Since then there have been many excellent television series that make a mockery of the big-budget, assembly-line schlock churned out by the Hollywood studios. It wasn’t difficult to become addicted to Mad Men or The Wire, but nowadays everyone has their particular favourites.
Homeland, which began its second season last Sunday night on Channel Ten, is the latest hit series to reach our screens. Season One is now available on disc, for those like me who periodically need to catch up with what the rest of the planet is watching.
The ingenious aspect of Homeland is that, like a John Le Carré novel, it combines an espionage theme with a storyline that takes us into the lives of a group of flawed, conflicted characters. It shows us the CIA as a very different organisation to the all-powerful entity found in the Bourne movies. It’s a bureaucracy with its own petty corruptions and office politics, prone to mistakes and stuff-ups.
On the other hand, Homeland seeks to make sense of Islamic terrorism rather than treating it as an irrational, evil force. One can understand the motivations of the terrorists, even if it does not make them any more palatable.
The plot is simple enough: Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been rescued from a prison cell in Iraq, where he has been held captive for eight years, believed dead. Brody, who has withstood torture and long periods of isolation, returns home a hero and is quickly made into a political poster boy for the war against terror.
CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), has intelligence that an American P.O.W. has been turned. She is convinced that Brody is the one, but has to tread warily. This is not easy because Carrie is bipolar, taking medication to stop anyone at the agency finding out about her condition. In true bipolar fashion she has brilliant flashes of insight and terrible lapses when her fragile self-composure disintegrates.
From these two characters, and a vivid supporting cast, a story emerges with all the twists and turns one could ask from any spy story. We are constantly in two minds about Brody’s loyalties and the extremes to which Carrie will go to keep the investigation alive. The American politicians are just as ruthless and rather less idealistic than the terrorist boss, Abu Nazir. The series demonstrates how easy it is to justify evil deeds in the name of justice on both sides of the fence.
Homeland was based on the controversial Israeli television series, Prisoners of War (2010), but this adaptation is entirely specific to the United States. Both Claire Danes and Damian Lewis have received numerous awards for their performances in the kind of roles that actors dream about. Although he is an Englishman, Lewis was an inspired choice as a US marine.
Season One ended with Carrie strapped to a table undergoing electroconvulsive shock therapy, while Brody had just been asked to run for Congress. In the first episode of Season Two, Carrie is dragged out of her forced retirement, while Brody’s political aspirations soar even higher. By now the story has a runaway momentum which leaves one panting for the next installment. I know it’s only fiction, but you really do feel the fate of the free world depends on the outcome of this series.
Homeland (Season One), USA, rated MA, 20th Century Fox, DVD release, 664 mins.
Homeland, (Season Two), Channel Ten, 8.30 Sundays.