I feel I’m missing something about Homeland, the new US drama series from the Showtime cable channel now airing in the UK. The story of a US marine who comes home after eight years as an Al-Qaeda captive, this remake of the Israeli series Hatufim comes lavished with praise from Barack Obama on down, and yet it’s just not quite clicking for me.
That’s certainly not fault of the acting, with is first rate. I’d expected Britain’s Damian Lewis to be the star of the show as the returning POW, Nicholas Brody – and his performance is certainly excellent – but in fact it’s Claire Danes as weirdly over-intense CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison who provides the most fascinating and compelling character in the show, grappling with her own psychological demons (that appear to be either paranoia or manic depression at this point.) Another Brit, David Harewood, is flawless as her antagonistic boss, and it’s great to see V’s arch-lizard Morena Baccarin get a chance to play a more nuanced and rounded role as Brody’s wife struggling to come to terms with her husband’s return after nearly a decade. There’s also Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor, doing much the same sort of turn that he always does (although older and more serious); but given his troubled history with TV series in the past, every time he’s on screen I half expect him to stand up mid-scene and walk off the set, never to return.
The direction is unflashy and nothing special, but that’s surely intentional as they strive for a naturalistic tone to the story. There’s still some nice touches: the moment when Brody settles down in bed unaware that his every move is captured on surveillance cameras, intercut with Carrie settling down to sleep on her couch while watching the screens so that the two appear to be sharing a wordless moment of intimacy before turning out the lights, even though Brody has no idea that she’s there. It certainly contrasts with Brody and his wife’s later disastrous attempts at sexual intimacy, which are so painfully uncomfortable to watch that even Carrie swats the screen away so that she doesn’t have to carry on seeing it either.
So for the most part this is a slow-paced study of a life under a microscope (Brody’s in the show, but Carrie’s as well to the TV audience.) It’s full of little moments, half-spoken feelings, unfinished sentences and awkward, self-conscious actions, quirks and ticks. In the show the central question is surely “Has Brody been brainwashed by Al-Qaeda into a Manchurian Candidate turncoat?” but the audience is likely to be as interested in “What are Carrie Mathison’s demons?”
It’s just as well that there’s a backup, because the Brody question is as problematic to the show as it is central. It has a binary yes/no answer that must, sooner or later, be answered. And if it’s answered ‘yes’ then what it does is to affirm all the extremists, fascists and bigots who assume that anyone who speaks a few words of Arabic let alone observes Muslim prayers must inevitably be a sleeper cell terrorist plotting mass murder. It’s hard to believe that the show will go down that grotesquely stereotyped route, which is the preserve of the likes of the obsessively patriotic and militaristic 24 and JAG type of shows. Homeland seems more situated in the liberal view of shades of grey, which means that Brody is most likely innocent of having been turned – albeit highly damaged by the post-traumatic stress he’s endured. (And if the US Army really does dump returning heroes back on their home doorsteps in the full glare of the media, after perfunctory debriefs and with no practical or psychological help to help them readjust, then it’s really a damning indictment of the American military mindset.)
Oddly one of the most interesting ideas the show has is currently the preserve of the opening titles, which shows the history of terror attacks against the US over the last 30 decades through the eyes of the young Carrie Mathison growing up watching the news on TV. This appears to give the implication that the psychological demons with which the character is now afflicted have been triggered or exacerbated by the fear- and paranoia-promoting media and political rhetoric that Carrie has lived with all her life; that the War on Terror (rather than terrorism directly per se) has brutalised her psyche as she grew up and has left her deeply damaged. When she says that as a young CIA officer she must have missed vital clues leading up to 9/11, she’s not satisfied by her mentor saying “We all did” and insists that she cannot let it happen again, taking upon herself a full and personal responsibility for all that happened on that tragic day. That obsessive compulsive paranoid tendency has warped her life for the next decade; just as, reading between the lines, it’s also done to the American national and political psyche.
That’s a really deep, profound and controversial suggestion to make in a TV show – not one you’d get in a mainstream network show, which would be far too scared to imply any such train of thought even buried as opening credit subtext. To even hint to the audience that they themsevles and their beloved country as a whole are psychologically clinically ill as a result of the politicians’, the media’s and their own reactions to the threat of terrorism is surely incendiary?
But if that’s really what’s simmering away underneath the surface of the show, it’s currently all too deeply buried for the time being. At the moment this show is just too self-consciously and pretentiously slow-moving for me. It’s not that I need or even like the ADHD-style of TV entertainment that serves up car chases and explosions every five minutes, but this just isn’t serving up enough on the surface to keep me engrossed while it decides whether or not to do anything worthwhile with the controversial subtext. Look instead at something like The Killing, which is equally glacial in its pacing and obsessed with the slow accretion of small details to make the big picture, and yet made each and every minute of that process both tense and utterly absorbing, impossible to look away for even a single second.
Homeland just doesn’t do that for me in the first three episodes. I want it to get a move on, and at the same time suspect that they won’t be able to live up to the expectations of a destination remarkable enough to have made the investment in the journey worthwhile.
Currently airing on Sunday evenings on Channel 4.