This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff, who’ll review the show week to week, and Erik Adams talk about Homeland.
Homeland debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Todd: I used to be the kind of critic who watched as many episodes of a show as he could get his hands on before writing a review. Over the past year, however, I have come around to the Noel Murray school of thought, at least on serialized dramas: It’s rarely good to be too far ahead of your readers. (One of the reasons critics are generally kinder to Boardwalk Empire than viewers are is because we get the seasons in big, six-episode chunks, and all shows improve when watched that way.) But I’ve got the next two episodes of Homeland sitting here, and I’m almost going to have to watch them before we finish this chat. That’s not just because Homeland is my favorite show of the fall, by a fair margin. It’s also because what makes the show so good in the pilot would be ridiculously easy to screw up in future episodes.
But let’s start with the pilot’s finest achievement: Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison. As Carrie, Danes is all brittle edges and weathered glass. She looks easily broken, yet she’s deceptively strong. Those too close to her tend to get sucked into the cyclone, and her life is one lived on the jittery edge of sanity. So it’s no surprise when her superiors at the CIA have a tendency to dismiss her out of hand. And that’s why she goes rogue to pursue her latest crazy theory, one based on something whispered to her by an imprisoned man in Iraq: A recently rescued POW named Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been turned by terrorists to join their cause. And his return to the United States may bode ill for the nation.
The natural place to jump to when discussing this show is 24. Two of the show’s producers (Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon) worked there, and that show was one of the few to make these sorts of season-long, terrorist-threat plots work. But the differences between the two can be boiled down best by considering their leads. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was a hard-charging man of action who took command of any room he was in. Danes’ Carrie may have just as much belief in her own righteousness, but she’s also constantly on the edge of being fired or even more marginalized than she already is. She’s seen as damaged goods, and that informs everything from the show’s plotting to it’s surprisingly complex politics (which I hope we’ll talk about later).
So what did you think of Danes, Erik? And while we’re at it, how about Lewis, whom I barely touched on?
Erik: I’m quite taken with Carrie, who’s given a tremendous amount of shading and alluring character detail in the pilot episode. (I too have only watched the pilot so far, but its slowly unravelling plot has me eager to jump into subsequent episodes.) I’m less certain about Danes’ performance, however, as she exudes plenty of self-assured confidence and wounded vulnerability when she needs to, but can’t quite stick the landing when she’s called upon to display Carrie’s interrogation skills. For me, that weakens one of the key scenes of the pilot. However, Danes is so good elsewhere that I have no doubt she’ll better affect what other characters assure us is Carrie’s well-honed ability to give people the third degree.
Lewis, meanwhile, gives the episode’s standout performance—and does so while saying very little. He’s wildly unsettling in the role of Brody, a shellshocked warrior whose troubles readjusting to life at home are ambiguously broadcast through pensive silence and a general unease, as if he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. Even if it weren’t for Carrie’s suspicions, he’d have cause to chafe—he returns to the United States a stranger in a strange land, living with a family that gave him up for dead and shaking hands with a vice president whose name he doesn’t even know. Lewis makes it incredibly easy to empathize with Brody, even as the pilot brings the circumstances of his captivity to light.
Man, it’s going to be hard to write about this show and stay out of spoiler territory. There are just so many expertly woven layers of subterfuge and secrecy going on that a) it’s hard not to want to talk about them—if only to parse them out, and b) I doubt we’ve only seen a sliver of the Homeland puzzle so far. To even say (in the vaguest terms) that there’s a huge, set-your-mouth-agape reveal at the end of the pilot feels like a betrayal to interested viewers who want to go into Homeland with zero expectations and no prior knowledge of the plot points.
So, what can we talk about? How gorgeously cinematic the pilot is? Because for a dread-caked thriller predicated on real-world fears, the first episode of Homeland is mighty nice to look at. [INSERT JOKE ABOUT TOPLESS MORENA BACCARIN HERE] The one shot I keep returning to is that of Baccarin—who plays Brody’s wife, Jessica—and the two Brody children seated in an otherwise empty terminal at an Air Force base. We aren’t been given a whole lot of information as to how the Brodys feel about Nicholas’ time in the Marines or his sudden return to life, but we can surmise some scraps from these few, fleeting moments of stillness: Jessica, who we meet in flagrante delicto with another man, stares blankly ahead at a future she had already put behind her. Her son, who barely knew his father when he was declared dead, looks bored and detached. There’s a similar apathy projected by the Brody daughter, but she obviously has some opinions about where she is and why her father has been missing for several years—the commemorative Air Force artwork framed between her and her mother indicates that Papa Brody’s service has driven a wedge between the members of his family. This is not only the symbolic end of the Brodys as a three-person unit, but the last time in a long time time that they’ll be together without the presence of television cameras and interrogative reporters. It’s an incredibly spare image, but it speaks volumes.
Any images like this that are sticking with you, Todd? And how can we continue a dialogue about Homeland that avoids ample spoilers and keeps us from making the prematurely hoary observation that this might be television’s most effective comment on the War On Terror?
Todd: Sadly, all of my favorite images would be quite spoiler-y. Perhaps I can jump down in comments after the pilot airs and talk about some of them.
I think the show is fairly smart about avoiding making outright political statements. This doesn’t mean it’s not a political show. Indeed, one of the major thrusts of the first three episodes (of which I’ve seen all three now) is the way the U.S. intelligence system works, the way it tends to reduce those who work for it to statistics (out of sheer necessity), and the way it both attracts a certain kind of person and can hollow them out if neither party is careful. Carrie is a great CIA analyst because of the loose wires in her personality, even as those loose wires would get her canned if anyone knew about them. I’m also kind of in awe of how the show breaks down the various ins and outs of what’s available to the security state if it really wants it, all without really calling attention to how alarming it is that, say, Carrie can plant surveillance cameras and seek legal justification for them later. It’s not a blatantly political show, but it should provoke some good discussions about the post-9/11 America, which is the sweet spot for a show like this.
I’m also quite taken with the way the show plays around with both issues of voyeurism and issues of how we watch serialized dramas. Carrie, who spends almost all of her time watching Brody and wondering what’s going on in his head, becomes an uneasy stand-in for us. This is material that’s been treated well in a number of films—Rear Window and The Lives Of Others, for two—but it’s something TV hasn’t really delved into, and that’s surprising to me, given how uniquely suited the medium is for a discussion of these ideas. We’re watching the screen, like Carrie, to see if we can ascertain just what’s going on with Brody. And even though we always have slightly more information than her, it’s never enough, and it never will be enough, not until we get that final, conclusive bit of proof. The series is so much more allusive than definitive, always careful to suggest things might be happening without outright confirming them, that it finds a nice space where it can confirm some things but leave us ever more confused and concerned about where all of this is going. (In its use of ambiguity, it reminds me of the current season of Breaking Bad, actually.)
After all, part of the fun of watching a show like this is trying to figure out what Tony Soprano or Walter White is up to. Homeland’s smartest move is placing another layer—Carrie—between us and the guy we have questions about. And, ultimately, we have just as many questions about her, as we watch her seem to slowly unravel and watch as Brody becomes her entire life, even as she probably should be focusing on other things that are happening. The show is great at using the old 24 trick of seeming like bad things are about to happen, but because it’s been slowed down and made so cerebral, there’s more existential dread than anything else. This is a show that aims to exist within the freewheeling dread that settled over the nation after the Twin Towers fell, and it’s surprising just how well it sketches in characters and makes you worry about whether they’ll survive or not almost immediately.
I’m also impressed by how the show doesn’t just dwell on questions of national security and terrorism. As you’ve said, the family stuff with Brody and his wife is just as potent as the larger narrative. Without spoiling too much, the series suggests there are many, many ways to drive wedges between people and the things they’re faithful to, that there are many ways to “turn” someone against something they once held dear. Carrie’s fears about Brody are just the most obvious of these. But it’s also present in the way the Brodies’ teenage daughter now looks at her mother with absolute disgust or in the way Brody seemingly can’t understand most aspects of the modern world. (He’s even a bit unclear on what YouTube is.) It’s even present the few times we get to see Carrie’s personal life. It doesn’t take much to turn someone against someone else, ultimately. And these personal betrayals can be just as hurtful on that small scale as any massive plot. This wouldn’t need to have the terrorism element to be a compelling show, and that’s saying a lot.
But we’ve gushed enough. There are a few small issues here and there, and I’m wondering what complaints you have, if any.
Erik: As with any pop-culture product of this nature, Homeland runs the risk of conflating the entire Islamic religion with its most radical elements. We’ve seen this happen time and again in post-9/11 America, most recently with Frank Miller’s poorly received, critically drubbed graphic novel Holy Terror. To go into the exact moment that planted this worry in my mind is another potential spoiler (and one that’s not in the pilot), so maybe we can talk further about it when the time comes. Either way, for a series that has, so far, dealt elegantly with topical issues that frequently break down into black and white, I’d hate to see Homeland drop its nuanced approach for this one topic—particularly since it stands to motivate the actions of more than one character. Also since, you know, there are millions of people who practice said religion and have never used its tenets as justification for horrific violence.
But as you said Todd, all of the issues we could raise here are minor and few and far between. Like the problems I had with Danes performance, I’m sure they’ll be ironed out as we get further into the first season. It’s hard for me not to gush about Homeland because it’s the first heavily serialized series I’ve seen this fall where the pilot made me want to jump immediately into subsequent chapters. (For the record, I’m two episodes in, and itching to watch the third.) Its bait-and-switch techniques and refusal to give us any definitive answers could prove tiresome six or seven episodes in, but in these early goings, they’re a thrilling bit of fun—which isn’t a word you’d expect to associate with a War On Terror drama. I’m eager to see how the remaining episodes play out, but I’m also curious if the showrunners have any contingency plans past this initial season; the mystery surrounding Brody doesn’t seem sustainable past these first 12 episodes. Which is all the more reason to praise the pilot’s handling of the personal and the political—there are already several relationships in place that could be developed and explored over the span of several seasons. What are your long-term hopes for Homeland, Todd? And what did you see from these first three episodes would be an obstacle toward the series achieving those hopes?
Todd: What fears I had about the show’s treatment of the Islamic religion were… not exactly allayed by episode three but made slightly less by episode three. It’s a tricky conceit to work with in these sorts of shows: The vast majority of terrorists who want to attack the United States belong to Islam; the vast majority of practitioners of Islam aren’t violent in the slightest. Getting around this issue requires either paying blatantly obvious lip service to the latter before proceeding with the former or developing a rich, complicated world of all sorts of Islamic practitioners (as another show this is sort of similar to—but better than—Sleeper Cell, did at times). I’m not immediately worried about this. The show’s dedication to telling this story on a very small, very human scale means that it necessarily isn’t painting anyone with too wide a brush. But it’s certainly an area to wonder about going forward.
There are, of course, other small issues. Here and there, the plot strays toward contrivance (though rarely as much as it does on most shows of this type). A few of the characters on the periphery of the story are rather thinly drawn. And Carrie’s bosses at the CIA are too often painted as thoughtless bureaucrats, who don’t really give a damn about her or what she’s accomplished and shoot down perfectly reasonable suggestions from her to seem all the more villainous. On the one hand, not a one of these issues was so prominent as to make me so much as roll my eyes at the silliness of what was going on. And on the other hand, these are all issues that will be easily fixable with more episodes to play around with.
But by and large, this is terrific TV, excellently told and terrifically executed. I think it’s telling that we’ve talked for 2,500 words, and we’ve barely touched on, say, the wonderful world-weariness of Mandy Patinkin’s Saul or how much fun Carrie’s surveillance buddies are when they’re trying to get her out of her house or eating properly. Sometimes, it’s easy to make a show like Homeland sound like “eat your vegetables” TV, a series that you should watch to stay up on what’s good and what’s current. But Homeland tosses all of those concerns aside within mere minutes of watching its pilot. This is just good, fun TV, with a sober undercurrent designed to provoke thoughtfulness and debate. Like the late, lamented Rubicon, it asks what cost the War on Terror has been to our humanity, and it never says there are any easy answers.
Todd’s grade: A-
Erik’s grade: A-