LOS ANGELES — Showtime's "Homeland," which premieres Sunday, is not just the best new drama of the season (and would be, no doubt, even if the bar had been set higher than it has been this year), it's the first telling of a post-9/11 story that is all the things it should be: politically resonant, emotionally wrenching and plain old thrilling to watch.
Perhaps not surprisingly, two of its creators, executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, were forces behind Fox's "24" (a third, Gideon Raff, created the Israeli series "Prisoners of War"). But whereas "24" embodied, and often exploited, the anxiety and paranoia of an America at war with terrorism, "Homeland" takes an approach that is both more direct and more universal. Although it is quite time-specific, this is a character-driven narrative that chronicles the splatter pattern of the physical, psychological and moral breakdowns created by war.
The action opens as these stories often do, with CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) racing through the streets of Baghdad to keep a terrorist from being executed before he can divulge information about an upcoming attack on Americans. When Carrie promises to protect his family, he tells her that an American prisoner of war "has been turned."
Months later, having been called back to D.C., Carrie learns that an American POW, missing for eight years, has been rescued from Iraq. Sgt. Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) returns home not just a hero, but proof that U.S. intelligence has finally gotten something right.
But Carrie suspects that Brody is her newly minted al-Qaida agent, and when even her longtime mentor, Saul (a rather marvelous Mandy Patinkin), says she doesn't have enough to go on, she takes matters into her own hands, setting up an illegal 24-hour surveillance of Brody and his family.
With a plot that crosses German Oscar-winner "The Lives of Others" with "Three Days of the Condor," ''Homeland" has a few weak spots. CIA Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood) is a cardboard cut-out while a subplot in which Brody's wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), is "carrying on" with his best friend, Capt. Mike (Diego Klattenhoff), is played in a way that makes the affair seem shocking and shameful — even though Brody was missing for eight years and presumed dead.
One is also left wondering why no one seems to think counseling is in order for soldiers and families who find themselves in a joyful but still traumatic homecoming situation, or why Jessica, who Baccarin infuses with a believable if highly convenient emotional paralysis, apparently has no friends.
Fortunately, none of that matters much because all eyes are on "Homeland's" leads, whose performances are so good it's almost unearthly. Carrie is twitchy-smart, desperately tough and, possibly, completely unreliable as an agent. Among other things, she is popping some serious looking pills that are neither Vicodin nor Ortho Novum but, we are told, a mood stabilizer.
Danes, fresh from her spectacular turn in HBO's "Temple Grandin," is a wonder. As she wantonly disregards the Constitution and puts her own sources in mortal peril, Carrie's motives are unclear, even to herself. She is compelled to atone for something she missed on 9/11, but her eagerness to act on the words of a condemned terrorist and illegally spy on Brody and his family makes the question of "right" ambiguous, not just politically but in terms of character. How heroic can a person be who watches as a scar-ravaged POW tries to make love to his wife for the first time in eight years?
As Brody, Lewis, last seen here on the tragically short-lived police drama "Life," uses his extraordinary gift for radiant stillness to create a man who may be Carrie's perfect contrast but is equally riveting to watch. That Brody has been broken by his experience is clear; what version of himself he has managed to rebuild is not.
Vacillating between disgust at the Army's intention to use him as a poster boy and a willingness to play that very game, Brody could indeed be a conduit to a sleeper cell or he could just be a man undone by the events of his life. He could even wind up being the hero of the story, feinting left, then heading right to wreak havoc upon those who imprisoned him.
The only thing early episodes of "Homeland" make clear is that in post-9/11 America, the traditional definitions of good and bad, hero and villain, even protagonist and antagonist, are also victims of war.
Fortunately, as it turns out, great acting and good storytelling are not.
Mary McNamara: firstname.lastname@example.org
When: 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
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