'Homeland' Faces Freshman Challenge


Last Sunday's Emmy bash just confirmed what TV critics and loyal fans already knew: that "Homeland" is a masterful, rock-your-world kind of show.

Showtime's intensely gripping psychological thriller captured the prize for outstanding drama and swept the lead-acting categories with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis taking home trophies for their brilliant performances.

Now comes the challenge every freshman TV phenom must face: Can the series sustain the kind of high-caliber quality that earned it so many raves? It's a particularly relevant question for "Homeland," which by virtue of its storytelling structure, must now alter its direction.

What made the first season so compelling was the cat-and-mouse game played by the lead characters. Carrie Mathison (Danes) was a mentally troubled CIA operative who became convinced that Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a former Marine prisoner of war, was colluding with terrorists. And she went to near-insane measures to prove it.

Was her hunch right? Or was she bonkers? The show kept us guessing over 12 tantalizing episodes as we watched these damaged characters tiptoe around one another and develop a strangely intimate relationship.

But by the end, we had our answers - and, dear reader, stop here if you still need to catch up: Brody was, indeed, a bad guy who, on the order of terrorist leader Abu Nazir, very nearly pulled off a suicide bomb mission that would have taken out the vice president. Unfortunately, Carrie never had definitive proof of this. Banished from the CIA in disgrace, she wound up receiving electroshock treatment to quell her bipolar disorder.

The second season jumps six months ahead. Brody is a newly minted congressman who could be in line for an even more prestigious political job, much to the delight of his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin). What she doesn't know is that he's using his status to steal top-secret intel at the behest of Nazir.

Meanwhile, Carrie is doing her best to get over her CIA humiliation and her feelings for Brody. She's living with her father and sister, has a teaching job and is popping lithium. It's the kind of chill-out lifestyle that's good for her, but we all know it won't last.

Sure enough, Carrie's old CIA mentor (Mandy Patinkin) soon is whisking her to Beirut for a delicate, "one-time" assignment and everyone, including Carrie, is on edge because, well, she's a volatile loose cannon that could go off at any time.

Over the two episodes available for preview, "Homeland" makes good use of its new narrative dynamic. The fact that we know more about Brody than Carrie does amps up the suspense - and frustration. Meanwhile, the show continues to keep the tension at a fever pitch, especially in the second episode, when it appears Carrie's mission might go terrifyingly awry.

As for our lead characters, they're in a near-constant state of anxiety and inner conflict - emotional flavors that both actors play exceptionally well. Danes, in particular, benefits from a pair of wide, expressive eyes that somehow convey so many raw and vulnerable feelings that dialogue, at times, becomes superfluous.

If there's any cause for concern, it's that each episode contains an improbable plot development that just happens to place Brody where and when he needs to be to do something pivotal to his agenda. For now, they are just slight annoyances, but you just hope they don't build up to the point where "Homeland" becomes like "24"-a show that resorts to lame twists in order to keep pulses racing.

Don't go there, "Homeland" writers. You're better than that.

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