There's no question Homeland has reached a broad audience, including the President it seems. Bill Clinton apparently brags that he turned President Obama onto the show. But, after watching the first season over a long weekend I have to wonder what Smokin' Joe Biden thinks of the Showtime series, as it is the Vice-President, amiably played by Jamey Sheridan, who comes across as the "bad guy" in this elaborate spy thriller.
While the creative team credits an Israeli television series, Prisoners of War, as its inspiration, it seems The Manchurian Candidate lurks in the back of their minds. The story revolves around a American POW that isn't quite the returning hero he seems, but to the writers' credit there are so many compelling twists and turns in this series that you soon forget the link.
Homeland plays out more like a 12-part movie than a serial, with each episode dovetailing into the next, as we watch Carrie Mathison, a feisty CIA agent, try to figure out the next strike of a notorious al Qaeda leader, Abu Nazir. All she has initially to go on is a tip from an Iraqi informant that an American prisoner has turned and Nazir plans to use him. Lo and behold, Sgt. Brody pitches up 10 months later in Virginia, having been found by a Delta team on a raid deep in enemy territory.
While the show delves deeply into the domestic lives of all the characters, like the Israeli television series, the creators ratchet it up several notches by indulging in gratuitous sex and creating a tremendous amount of suspense, as you would expect from Showtime. However, the writers also create a great sense of ambiguity and moral uncertainty, all too often missing from such shows.
Nazir isn't a faceless terrorist, but a compelling figure explored mostly through a series of flashbacks as we learn about Brody's eight years in captivity. Damian Lewis, with his shock of red hair and pale blue eyes, embodies his role as the "good sergeant." The CIA agents are flawed characters, but steadfast in their belief they are serving the greater good of the country. Claire Danes is virtually unrecognizable as the bi-polar Claire who painfully breaks down during the course of the first season in her obsessive quest to foil Nazir's plot. But, my favorite character is Saul Berenson, impeccably played by Mandy Patinkin, who gives the show its gravitas.
There is an interesting aside in the last episode where Sgt. Brody equates the American Civil War with the Jihad being waged on America, only with a decidedly different set of allusions. I think the creators are trying to show how this pernicious War on Terror has driven the country apart, using the concept of "Homeland" both in the literal and allegorical sense of the word. I give the writers a lot of credit for using television to expand on this subject rather than create just another forensics series.
Like so many spy thrillers these days, Homeland has its CIA consultants and aims for a high degree of verisimilitude, even though the writers appear to stretch credulity at times with some of their plot twists, especially in the culminating episode of Season One. I suppose that has a lot to do with the success of the show and the need to keep the story running when it appeared it would come to a cataclysmic end. The Vice-President can breathe easy at least for one more season. But, apparently not everyone is happy in Beirut.