'Homeland' Plot Hits Close to Home


If the world could just keep it down to a dull roar on Sunday nights, the Leader of the Free World would like to enjoy the return of his favorite show, Homeland.

Not that the newly embraced Emmy darling qualifies as escapist entertainment. The second season opens with angry Arab mobs rioting outside an American embassy.

But the creators of Homeland aren't celebrating their prescience. In fact, they're worried that the plot may be a little too spot-on.

"The script was written months ago and filmed in early June and, all of a sudden, to have events catch up to us?" says executive producer Alex Gansa, who along with Howard Gordon adapted the show's premise from an Israeli series.

"Honestly, it's been a concern," says Gansa. "We're really trying to be sensitive about what's going on in the Middle East and about our foreign service officers in the region. We're hoping that we're not showing anything that would compromise their day-to-day operations."

Television that's too cutting edge? Welcome to Homeland.

If you're just coming on board, it's the story of CIA counterterrorism agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes of Temple Grandin). She becomes convinced that a recently returned POW, Marine Sgt. Nick Brody (Band of Brothers' Damian Lewis) was in fact turned by al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) while in captivity.

Now Carrie will do anything -- including seducing Brody -- to prove that this American hero, husband, and father of two is a secret Islamic terrorist.

Two other things you should know about Carrie. (1) She's severely bipolar, a condition she's obviously been hiding from her CIA bosses, including mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin). (2) She's right about Brody.

At the end of Season One, Carrie's condition became obvious; she was dismissed from the agency and entered a psychiatric facility. And while she was unable to make her case against Brody, one of her most unhinged incidents did unintentionally thwart his plan to blow up the vice president (Jamey Sheridan). Yet Brody's political star continued to rise.

Pretty intense stuff. But Homeland's fans extended far beyond the White House. Spurred by word of mouth, viewership grew 58 percent as the season jolted along. The finale was watched by 4.23 million across all platforms.

What was it about the show that kept them transfixed?

"The suspense, plus two extremely sympathetic characters," says Ken Tucker, the television critic for Entertainment Weekly (a title he previously held at The Inquirer), via e-mail.

"That is, the series avoided being a preachy or political drama but used the world political stage as a site for relentless tension, twists and turns. Also, it's rare for one series to present a macho tough guy under strain and with fragile emotions who's also intellectually brilliant. Most shows would settle for one of those as their protagonist; Homeland has two, and thus appeals to men and women viewers equally."

It also captivated Emmy voters. The show won for Outstanding Drama Series, and Danes and Lewis took the top acting awards. Those results were not only unexpected, they exhibited a dominance that is almost unheard-of for a freshman series.

In what may be an augury of things to come, none of the six nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category was on broadcast.

"After Howard and I finished the pilot, we knew it had to be on cable and hopefully on premium cable," says Gansa. "We wanted each week to be like a small film and we didn't want them interrupted by commercials. And then we had two strong protagonists: a very ambitious character in Nick Brody and a very, for lack of a better word, complicated character in Carrie, and no clear heroes."

That may be the most distinctive feature of this bold new age of cable drama: its tin gods.

"Our definition of a hero in post-9/11 may have changed. You can see it in Brody, in Nucky from Boardwalk Empire, arguably in Don Draper from Mad Men," says Steven A. Miller, who runs the undergraduate program in Rutgers University's Department of Journalism and Media Studies.

"What are you willing to do? Will the ends justify the means and what is our ethical balance? The tagline on Boardwalk Empire is 'You can't be half a gangster.' Can you be half a hero? We're asking Brody and Nucky and Draper, 'What will you do to accomplish your goals? How far will you go and still be able to live with yourselves?' That's a question we never asked in the old days."

Howard Gordon believes that Homeland is pitched in the same moral quagmire as his and Gansa's last hit, 24, and is popular inside the Beltway for the same reason.

"With 24, we were appreciated by people on both sides of the aisle," Gordon says. "Bill Clinton loved it, but so did Karl Rove. The shows reflect the challenge of what our decision-makers have to face all too often: trade-offs between two bad choices. Choosing not what is the greater good, but what is the least bad."

What keeps people watching, in Tucker's opinion, is the fasten-your-restraining-device suspense, not the political message.

"I think the show is 'liberal' in the sense that it wants us to understand more about the Muslim faith and its practitioners, and to respect the faith and the people who believe in it," he says. "In this political climate, that's practically left-wing! But in a broader sense, the show is apolitical: It really just wants to be as swift and exciting an entertainment machine as it possibly can, and you can't be an artistic or commercial suspense series if you're grinding a political ax -- that effort just slows you down."

Gordon and Gansa's intentions for Season Two may surprise you.

"Carrying the story forward, we labored over finding the context for Carrie and Brody to cross paths again," says Gordon. "We separated them so effectively with her breakdown and his political rise."

"At the heart of Season One was this cat-and-mouse chase between Carrie and Brody, this relationship between the hunter and the hunted," says Gansa. "I think Chapter Two is all about their doomed love affair."

Can we free the hostages first, guys?

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