That's what occurs in 'Homeland' (10PM ET Sunday, Showtime), which would be worth watching if all it had going for it were the tremendous work being done by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. But 'Homeland' also manages to be both an addictive espionage thriller and a compelling character study, as well as a well-constructed exploration of the difficulties and ambiguities of fighting terrorism a decade after Sept. 11. Without a doubt, it is one of the finest new shows of the year.
Danes and Lewis both portray guarded, damaged characters who have trouble knowing whom to trust, and the parallels and contrasts between them are fascinating. Lewis plays Nicholas Brody, a Marine who returns home after eight years as the captive of Islamic radicals, and his wariness may be the result of understandable re-entry difficulties -- or it may indicate something more sinister.
Danes is Carrie Mathison, an impassioned and tightly wound CIA agent who believes that, during his time as a prisoner, Brody was turned into a terrorist operative. Carrie's wounded, obsessive energy exudes from every pore, while Lewis brilliantly portrays a man consumed by a monumental internal struggle. With unusual subtlety, 'Homeland' invites us to question both characters' motives, even as they themselves grapple with complex layers of personal and political loyalty.
Though Brody and Carrie meet only briefly, the links between them run deeper than her professional interest in his status as a potential terrorist. Both keep secrets and tell convenient lies to the people around them; both are clearly good at getting others to do what they want, and yet, for different reasons, Brody and Carrie sometimes have trouble just getting through the day.
Hailed as a hero, Brody feels like a stranger in his own home, and Lewis succeeds in conveying the Marine's internal disquiet and his surprising adaptability. A reporter in his backyard sends him to a dark place, for example, but he's able to connect with his teen daughter in ways that his wife can't. The war stole more from him than just eight years; he's haunted by nightmares and covered in scars. Resuming his relationship with his conflicted wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), is anything but easy.
You could argue that Carrie is alone by choice, but it's not as simple as that. Her obsessive focus on work allows her to tune out what she considers unnecessary distractions, and once she's convinced that Brody has been turned by his captors, she delves deep into every aspect his life, only to find someone who appears to be every bit as lonely as she is.
Carrie isn't completely cut off at the Agency, however. She has a mentor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin, doing some of his best work), who finds her as difficult as everyone else does but is willing to give her a chance to prove that her suspicions about Brody are warranted. And speaking of professional associates, David Marciano ('The Shield') is excellent as an ex-CIA friend who gets swept into Carrie's whirlwind of suspicion.
What her few friends don't know is that she has a "mood disorder" that she fears would disqualify her from espionage work -- an outcome that would be unthinkable for her. Yet that's another shared circumstance that links her to Brody: plunked down in his old life, he's buffeted by impulses, emotions and memories that he can't really control. It might be an overstatement to say that both are prisoners in their own minds, but one of the pleasures of 'Homeland' is that nothing is overstated. We are allowed to observe and draw our own conclusions.
And after years of seeing TV shows parade an endless series of male anti-heroes across the screen, it's strangely refreshing to find that Carrie is a woman whose rough edges have not been sanded down. Danes has always known how to make you feel compassion for her complicated characters: Whatever their foibles, they usually mean well, as Carrie certainly does. Nothing she does is motivated by a desire for glory or personal gain, yet it's entirely likely that Carrie cares too much -- so much that she's seeing a nefarious plot where there isn't one. It's also possible that she needs to be exactly this tenacious, duplicitous and difficult in order to cut through the formidable internal politics at the Agency.
Given that he's playing a career military man who plays his cards close to his medal-covered chest, Lewis ('Band of Brothers,' 'Life') has less scope to work with, but he does deft and even heartbreaking work as he takes us through Brody's difficult return to a very changed family. Lewis has to depict a man of few words who may be plotting to bring down the country he had sworn to defend, and it's to the actor's credit that he makes both scenarios -- Brody as terrorist and Brody as loyal but troubled American -- equally plausible.
As is the case with so many of 2011's most promising shows, I am not quite sure how 'Homeland' will fill out a complete season of television. It's possible that the show will drag out the "is he or isn't he" question for too long, and dramas based on secrets and lies sometimes deflate and lose intensity after the biggest reveals occur. Certainly 'Rubicon,' an otherwise fine drama that is 'Homeland's' closest TV cousin, lost focus as it tried to conclude the main arc that drove its first (and only) season.
But in its first three hours, 'Homeland' finds interesting ways to add to and amplify the various stories that Carrie and Brody are involved in, and those three episodes do such a good job of creating tense dynamics and fraught relationships that I'm not going to spend time fretting about how things could go wrong. If nothing else, 'Homeland' represents exactly the direction Showtime needs to take if it wants to compete with HBO in the buzz sweepstakes.
Note: The pilot for 'Homeland' is available online here.
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