Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Review: HOMELAND, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Wednesday, 5 October 2011
written by Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon & Gideon Raff / directed by Michael Cuesta
starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, Morena Baccarin & David Harewood

*** (out of four)
Coming from veteran writers of 24, it's hard not to expect another fast-paced and invigorating rollercoaster ride of torture and peril from Showtime's Homeland, but this pilot is a great deal more nuanced, sophisticated and clever. A terrorism thriller for the reflective Obama era, rather then the vengeful tenure of George W, you might say. The concept is simple but engrossing: after US Special Forces raid a compound in Baghdad and discover a hirsute Sgt Brody (Damian Lewis)--MIA for eight years, presumed dead--CIA ops officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is reminded of intelligence she personally received months prior, when a condemned terrorist told her "an American prisoner of war has been turned." Suspecting Brody's the traitor being referred to, part of an Al-Qaeda plot to trigger an act of terrorist on US soil, Carrie tries to get her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) to surveil Brody when he's reunited with his family, but can't convince him that her concerns are valid, which forces ardent Carrie to take matters into her own hands...

The great thing about Homeland is how its idea is presented and neatly explored, as there's plenty of room for some great human drama that, rather amazingly, doesn't feel so well-trodden in this genre. The moment when Brody is returned to his family, who've come to believe he died in the line of duty, was brilliantly handled. Brody's wife Jessica (V's Morena Baccarin) has even been sleeping with his best-friend Mike (Diego Klattenhoff), so finds herself in an awkward situation when a ghost from her past returns in an almost literal sense. Plus there's a great deal of emotion to be squeezed from the fact Nick's kids, Dana (Morgan Saylor) and Chris (Jackson Pace) barely remember their father.

And it's just a fascinating idea to have a POW being hailed a national hero, while a lone CIA agent chooses to act on her gut feeling that all-American US Marine sniper Nick's been radicalized by a terrorist mastermind called Abu Nazir. Damian Lewis still carries some of his personable Band Of Brothers baggage, so you find yourself hoping Carrie's somehow mistaken and this traumatized family man's not really a wolf in sheep's clothing. The only concern is that this story will undoubtedly make for a terrific cable-length season of television, but what's planned for a second season and beyond? I assume the show will have to explore other stories where national security is under threat, making Homeland the thinking man's 24 and Carrie a feminist Jack Bauer.

I have to mention the impressive cast, who all embrace this material and shine in their roles. Danes isn't an actress I'd imagine to be playing an obsessive CIA agent secretly taking anti-psychotic drugs, but she's fantastic as the twitchy Carrie, who'll do anything to protect her country (even illegally bugging a war hero's home); it almost goes without saying that Lewis (with his perfect US accent) makes Nick an unsettling, sympathetic and oddly tragic figure; Morena Baccarin is a surprise standout as Nick's "widow", having to cope with his miraculous return despite the fact she's moved on, and particularly impressive in a scene where she notices her husband's torture scars, moments before they have no-frills sex that brings tears of loveless anguish to her eyes; and Mandy Patinkin is great fun as the experienced spook Carrie has to convince about her wild theory.

There's so much that's really good about Homeland, and it's comfortably the best pilot I've seen this month. It's the obvious next step for a pop-culture that embraced right-wing 24 in the wake of 9/11 (chasing a sense of comfort through fictional shows of strength and zero-tolerance), but has now started to look inward at its own citizens and soldiers. There's even our second allusion to the growing culture of Orwellian surveillance here (hot on the heels of CBS' Person Of Interest), with the lengths Carrie will go to in order to prove a man guilty.

It's also pleasantly unexpected that everything the pilot presents us with doesn't feel annoyingly ambiguous. Carrie suspects Nick Brody's working for the enemy and will be instrumental in a terrorist attack, and by the end of the episode it's almost impossible to doubt she's right. Maybe there are some twists to come (is Nick perhaps a double-agent?), but it all hints at a very entertaining season to come. I just hope this adaptation of Israeli series Prisoners Of War (unlike AMC's The Killing) knows it can't mess audiences around to drag out a simply story, and there won't be unconvincing ways to keep the show afloat for too many years. It's almost impossible to imagine how they could, so I'm taking that as a good sign...

2 October 2011 / Showtime