“Homeland: it hits home” – strap line in ads for Homeland

The timing of this review could not be more apposite, coming as it does in the week when the CIA have rightly been hammered for the torture carried out post-9/11 (see here.)  The tactics of so-called “enhanced interrogation” were denied to be torture by then President George W Bush, but would  meet the criteria by the definition of any sane and reasonable person – and are faced head on by Homeland.  The key issue is this: if we are the civilised world, are we, through the use of these techniques, reducing ourselves to the lowest common denominator, and thereby being no better than the people we are expected to think of as enemies?  I’ll leave you to decide on that, but meanwhile there is a TV review to consider…

I’ve watched a fair few American TV series and reviewed some of them on these pages. From Sopranos to Six Feet Under, and now House to Homeland, among many others.  At the point where I bought the first three series of Homeland on DVD I knew nothing about the series, though the clue is in the title and it was also trailed as an adaptation of the Israeli series Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”), much as the excellent British original House of Cards was adapted and elongated into a two series epic vehicle for Kevin Spacey under the same title.

I knew Homeland was well regarded, though even series with the very highest production values can leave a bad taste in the mouth for a proportion of the audience.  It won Emmies and Globes aplenty, indicating that there are many positive qualities worth seeing, but I guess I also have a problem with series like these.

Perhaps part of said problem is that nothing happens by accident, and production companies don’t invest many millions in a pilot unless they are sure of a sale and several series in order to get a return on investment without profiling their demographic and deciding which market segments to target.  This drives the approach, the plot, the values, the actors, the shock tactics, everything. To that extent TV series feel manufactured and artificial, no matter how many teams of writers have a hand in the process.

There is an element of this in Homeland, but in common with the best of breed it works on several levels, one of which is that of sophisticated soap opera and another a political thriller.  Inevitably there is the family trauma, since that is the one human factor that will appeal to female viewers in particular (allegedly), but subtleties are woven into the plot lines to create a deeper, richer picture than initially meets the eye.

Were it not for the sophistication and multi-dimensional characters, maybe there would not be enough human interest to sustain long episodes over several series.  As it is, there is not a series that does not have its dull moments in which the attention of the viewer wanders, particularly in the multifarious subplots wound around the main proceedings.

At face value this is a tale with similarities to many more such dramas played out in many ways over the years: the good guys versus the bad guys, the collaborators and the double agents. It could easily have taken place against the backdrop of Allies v Nazis in WWII or Yanks vs Russkis in the Cold War, but instead it transposes to CIA vs Al-Queda and post-Iraqi war politics.

Here the double agent, or the weakling wavering between two warring factions if you want to view it in those terms, is Sgt Nicholas Brody, American war hero or converted terrorist, and in practice a bit of both.  As we begin series 1, Brody has been held prisoner for 8 years, has been recaptured and is now back with his wife and family, though the transition back is far from easy, and following a tip-off from another informant the CIA has subjected him to intensive surveillance.

From that point events seesaw in one direction and another, with tensions building on all sides. Sure, there are times when it hits home and hits hard, dramatic climaxes you may or may not have seen coming, contrasted sharply with softer-edged, almost romantic interludes necessary for character development.  Somehow the highs don’t punch you in the stomach quite like BB, but then maybe they were more foreseeable?

At least I want to give credit to the writers that this is not portrayed as a naive Wild West shoot-em-up like so many John Wayne frontiersman movies.  The goodies are far from being blameless and neither are the baddies entirely bad – there are shades of grey and complications on all sides.

In fact, a significant part of Brody’s compromised moral integrity relates to a US drone strike ordered by the VP that kills 83 children… but the emotional complexity is what demonstrates precisely that reality is nothing like as morally black and white as the American government would have voters believe.  The CIA does not come out of this drama smelling of roses, and rightly so.  It is is engaged in its own form of politics, as you would expect of any major government agency – and like the real life George Bush Sr, VP Walden in the series is a former Director of the CIA.

I can’t honestly say Homeland is my favourite TV series, and despite the attempts to heighten tensions I did not find it grabbed my attention as well as, say, Breaking Bad.  But it is undeniably a well-made series acted with ferocious intensity, especially by Claire Danes as a bipolar but hugely passionate and perceptive CIA operative Carrie Mathison, whose relationship with Brody is equally bipolar.

I can’t say I found Damian Lewis quite so convincing as Brody – something to do with his supercilious smirk maybe – but then it is a very difficult role to pull off, such that you are never truly convinced even he knows where his loyalties lie.  In the same way, Morena Baccerin as his wife Jessica seems overly flummoxed by his return and never quite recovers her composure or her motivations, nor indeed her joie de vivre given that her long-running affair with Brody’s erstwhile best friend is severely curtailed by his return.

On the other hand, grizzled veteran Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), Carrie’s mentor, strikes the right notes, as does the scheming Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood.)  Not bad going – two out of four leading roles in a drama set almost entirely in the US played by Brits (Lewis and Harewood), and they more than hold their own!

Watch out for key characters being killed off along the way, but new ones taking their place – never a dull moment!  But rather than me describing every turn of the screw and how dramatic suspense has been wrung from the scenario by exploring every variant of the possibilities, then some, it would be easier for you to watch and make your own mind up.  I hope you enjoy, though rather than enjoyment this is a series designed to make you wonder where your loyalties truly lie.

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