Oh Homeland, where to start? When this show premiered it was so cool. Not a lot of people were watching it yet so it had that inherent underrated thing going on but was good from the get go. The writing was sharp, full of storytelling so engrossing that it was at once suspenseful to the point of nerve-wracking and full of calmingly relatable characters. The struggle I often have with cable is that I can’t handle the seemingly immovable antihero archetype (it’s what’s principally kept me from loving Breaking Bad with the gusto of most of its fans- I’ve never been able to invest in Walter, or anyone really beyond Jesse and sometimes Hank). Almost every leading character on cable is a bad guy. Sometimes- like in Dexter or The Sopranos– they’re charismatic enough that you root for them in spite of everything. And sometimes- like in Weeds– you just want to hit them with a baseball bat. But what Homeland pulled off so masterfully was the presentation of two angles on moral ambiguity and trustworthiness that stood in opposition to each other, neither wholly lovable or loath-able.
Carrie (played with the manic showiness that makes most people love but me dislike Claire Danes) is technically on the good guy side of the law as a CIA operative in an American-produced entity. But, with the exception of series-standout character Saul (“Mandy Patinkin, Holla” –best Emmy speech quote ever), most everyone else on the CIA side of things ranges from fairly sketchy (the CIA deputy director) to full-on morally bankrupt (the Vice President of the United States, of all people; Homeland exists in a strange universe with Obama but without Biden). And Carrie herself is, at least for me, one of the hardest characters to like, not to mention trust, on the entire show. We keep being told that she’s brilliant, but is she really brilliant enough to get to keep working at the CIA despite a sometimes-untreated manic-depressive disorder? And, her actual chemical troubles aside, her conduct in the office is outrageous (she’s either already slept with, currently sleeping with, or has at some point offered to sleep with almost every co-worker, asset, or superior she has), she, even totally medicated, is such a loose canon that she’s sometimes been a literal threat to national security, and she has a Katniss-like approach to following orders, meaning she routinely ignores them because she thinks she always knows best no matter what. Infuriating.
Now flip the coin. Damian Lewis- an actor who is not only endlessly likable and refreshingly understated but who oozes trustworthiness and moral character (maybe it’s his Band of Brothers cred)- plays potential-come-confirmed-come-reformed-come-screwed terrorist Nicholas Brody and immediately made him my favourite character on the show (well, I weirdly like Mike, and obviously Saul is the bomb, but Brody’s amazing). By developing his relationship with his daughter and filling in the backstory of his 8 years as an Iraqi prisoner of war, even when Brody was revealed to be poised to commit a black-and-white unforgivable crime, he never lost me. Especially for such an American show- all patriotism and use of the royal “we” to mean “we the people”- the way Homeland motivated Brody’s terrorism with actual American wrong-doing and Navid Negahban’s seductively kind performance as Abu Nazir was remarkable. Even more noteworthy was how Brody’s turn to Islam was largely separated from said motivation, showing an unbelievable scope of understanding. Basically, season one of Homeland was amazing. Conflicting, frustrating, engrossing, and amazing.
Before I even get to season two, however, I’m just going to take a moment to lament how the Emmy voting system is working. It’s broken. I don’t know what’s broken about it but something has to be broken if the results are reflecting mob mentality so strongly year after year. This first bothered me the year that 4/5 episodes nominated in the drama writing category were Mad Men. I’m not saying Mad Men’s not well written, I’m saying that it’s unfathomable that it’s the only well written show on the air. If you look at the comedy category and what’s been happening there in the past few years it’s even more glaring. Modern Family is a fine show. It’s cute, it used to be pretty funny, and it’s in no way bad. But it’s not even close to the best comedy on the air, no matter your definition of good comedy (some may argue the best comedy is Louie, some say Girls, others Parks & Rec, South Park, The Big Bang Theory, Community or, like me, New Girl– that pretty much covers the major comedic taste groups). But even if Modern Family was the best comedy on the air, by letting it sweep every category, voters are basically saying that nothing else is even close to as important in the current comedy landscape as Modern Family. If you are a person who watches TV, and not someone who just watches Modern Family or, worse, someone who votes for Modern Family because they “hear it’s good” and the tide seems to be going in that direction, you know that there are literally dozens of comedies on the air right now that excel in ways Modern Family doesn’t at all corner the market. All this is to say that, no matter how awesome Homeland season one was (and it was pretty awesome), it’s Insane to award one show every single award possible (with the exception of supporting actor, where Mandy Patinkin bizarrely managed to escape even being nominated). I think Homeland should have gotten one acting award Or best writing, then maybe best drama as well. Two, just two. I would have gone with Lewis (or writing for the brilliant cabin episode), but if the Danes train was moving too fast why not finally give Jon Hamm or Michael C Hall some love? I’m very sensitive to things being overrated and Homeland took that dive the moment it was all of a sudden considered the greatest thing to happen to TV since, well, Modern Family (giving me the distinct feeling that most voters were going with the tide instead of with their gut).
Now, what’s fascinating about this downturn in my feelings for the show (something that was, afterall, not actually the show’s fault) is that it coincided exactly with a major downturn in the show’s actual quality, so it’ll be interesting to see how season two is reflected in next year’s Emmy race (my money’s on another clean sweep, including the addition of Patinkin whose Golden Globe nod will edge him in and who’ll take the prize based on his Amazing work in the finale episode and because Breaking Bad didn’t give the genius Aaron Paul much to do this season). Despite some standout episodes like the loaded “Q&A” and the ballsy finale, Homeland mostly just lost its edge in season two.
I first got irked when the generally sane Jessica went apeshit middle America on Brody about being Muslim (I was totally on board for the “some of the crazy things Carrie said now have me thinking” reaction, but she flew over the line into plain old insulting American ignorance about Islam so fast and so furiously that it ceased to be understandable prejudice-via-fear and started just making me resent her). Then the writers totally lost me when they started showing their 24 DNA in episodes like the tailor one where Brody became less of an ambiguous, slow burn, Hitchcockian character and more of a backwards popcorn action star (basically, Jack Bauer). I was that weird person who didn’t actually mind the hit-and-run subplot all that much (mostly because I like Dana more than your average Joe and found the VP’s son very intriguing), though it did point to the “Boom. Pow. Twist!” quality that took over the season and made people do condescending things like I just did where they point out how much less intellectual the showrunners’ last project was than their current one is reputed to be (translation: season one was a fluke and their true mediocrity will surely take over from here).
Whether that 24-ness will in fact take over as we head into season three remains to be seen, but I, cynical as this sounds, would bet on it. The cliffhanger, which, don’t get me wrong, I admired for it’s bold game-changing and promising Saul-emphasis, points even further away from the this-could-happen tone that made the first season so tense. The series has revealed itself to be more about the love story than most people were expecting- and that, frankly, doesn’t bother me that much in theory- but in order to sustain a romance worth watching, the writers have to 1) keep Brody alive then 2) keep setting up obstacles to keep him and Carrie apart, both of which (much as I would hate to see Lewis killed off) take the show further and further away from the terrifyingly potentially realistic realm it once occupied so successfully.
Finale Grade: B
Season Grade: B-
Read the rest of our Showtime 2012 series here:
Part I (Series Wrap Up: Weeds)
Part II (Dramedy Wrap Up: Shameless, The Big C, and Episodes)