Homeland, Season 1

My first impression of Homeland was its utter slaughtering of Mad Men at the Emmys. My second was of everyone I know being obsessed with it and not shutting up about it. My third was this; it’s really accurate:

Even if Homeland has become a punchline, a punching bag, whatever, it’s not without reason. It’s so talked about because it’s so good. I haven’t been hooked by a pilot in a very long time, and Homeland‘s first episode had me fully invested from the very start. If I weren’t so interested in sleep, I would have done that thing that most people do when they get into a TV show. I believe it’s called “mainlining.”

The interesting thing about Homeland is that I don’t actually like any of the characters. Claire Danes’ Carrie is a horrible person, as is Damian Lewis’ Brody and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul. (Okay, maybe Saul isn’t a horrible person, but he’s certainly not a saint.) They’re all selfish, but in a field that sort of allows for it. They’re not all the absolute best at their jobs, but they’re all really great, and they think they’re really great, and that’s fine. Because the stakes are literally so high, like national security high, you’re basically resigned to give them a free pass on whatever subversive tactics they’re using to get the information they need. Lying, mostly. Seduction, a little. But every errant glance or lingering stare has its place. Anyway, with all of this sketchy behavior happening, it’s a wonder that the characters get into your head enough for you to root for them, but they do. Hardcore-like. You want Carrie to succeed, even though she’s hiding her bipolar disorder from the government, because she just works so damn hard and deserves a bit of consistent happiness in her life. You want Brody to succeed because, despite the fact that he’s a terrorist sympathizer, he sympathizes with the most human side of things. And maybe because Brody’s enemy, the Vice President on the show, resembles Dick Cheney more than closely, and you’d like to see him disappear, even if it’s only on a fictional TV show. And, Saul. I want him to succeed mostly because I want him to be happy with his hottie wife. A smiling Mandy Patinkin is better than a frowny one. I should probably also mention the gorgeous but mostly unemotional Morena Baccarin, who plays Brody’s wife, Jessica, and David Harewood, who plays CIA counterterrorism director David Estes. (I assume Lance Reddick was too busy with Fringe to take this role?)

I’m about to do something here that will sort of jar myself, but here goes: I’m going to compare this series to The Wire. Not in that I think they’re on the same level; The Wire is the greatest thing, blah blah blah, stuff white people like. But the two shows are actually very similar. They’re both intellectual shows, both written in this new pay-cable style of intellectual auteurism. Both contain a conventionally saviour-like side and a conventionally sinister-like side. The biggest difference between them is how we the audience come to know each side.In The Wire, we have the law enforcement and the drug trade in Baltimore. In Homeland, we have the law enforcement and international terrorism, coincidentally across town in D.C. In the case of The Wire, we see both sides through the viewpoints of an infinite-seeming cast of characters. Character development was The Wire‘s greatest strength, because the people on that show were as real as anyone, but it was also its greatest weakness, because sometimes it was just impossible to keep track of everyone. In the case of Homeland, we saw both sides through Brody’s flashbacks. Connections are clearer, stories are more straightforward, conclusions are drawn, worlds are not overpopulated. It’s much simpler storytelling. And yet Carrie’s condition and Brody’s loyalty remain ambiguous until the end. Homeland doesn’t pretend that the audience is stupid; The Wire just assumes that the audience is really, really smart. I don’t think it’s sinful of me to say that Homeland is more accessible than The Wire.

The episode that really got me into Homeland, specifically, was “The Weekend,” in which Carrie and Brody’s quick and dirty affair reached its torrid and stressful climax. Bit by tiny bit, information slipped out on each side. He found out she was spying. She found out he knew a terrorist. Watching these two people dance around the real, deep facts was uncomfortable and beautiful at the same time. Both actors have this way of lighting each other up–they smile differently in each other’s presence–while also shutting each other down, because there’s so much on the line between the two characters.

By the end of the season, I felt like I really knew these characters, even though it was clear just how layered and mysterious they are capable of being. I felt for Carrie as she watched her precious cork board being torn down, I felt for Brody as he crouched in the corner of his dark house and wept while his kids were in school. And I also felt that I’m completely oblivious to what’s really going on overseas, what our troops are put through, and how their minds work under such duress. The character Nicholas Brody endures eight years of unpredictable captivity, which I can only hope is greatly exaggerated in its length and abuse. I also hope this show thrives for longer than that, because it’s a beacon of harsh, hopeful light on television. How much sooner until Season 2 comes out on DVD?