November 12, 2012 10:43am PT by Tim Goodman
'Homeland' Red Flags: Will It Crash and Burn or Soar to Greatness?
Note: There are season-one spoilers in this story and references to season-two episodes that have already aired.
Few series have careened as drastically -- with exhilaration and creativity -- from the beginning to the end of a season as Showtime's Homeland during its first season. The series about whether a U.S. Marine, held prisoner for eight years, is really an al-Qaida operative ran the table at the Emmys, including best drama, and is looking to set itself up permanently in the pantheon of truly great shows.
Ah, but it's early yet.
It's wonderful to get that hardware -- and stars Damian Lewis and Claire Danes were exceptional in their Emmy-winning performances -- but true greatness is earned with time. Television is a living, breathing, endless story that is so difficult to keep sharp episode to episode, season to season. That's why so few series are unquestionably brilliant.
As season two moves onward for Homeland -- it has been equally spectacular this year, following up on jaw-dropping twists from season one -- some of the nagging worries I had about the show from the start have started to pop up.
And cause more worrying.
Look, no writer or producer should be judged on his or her past work (or, more accurately, have that work held against them as they forge on with a new project), but there's no getting around the fact that Homeland co-creators and executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are tied to the Fox series 24, which seemed almost revolutionary when it debuted in 2001 with its breathtaking pace, heart-pounding twists and creative use of multiple screens. However, 24 very quickly buckled under the weight of its promise and became, at best, merely an entertaining hour of television and, at worst, Fox's finest sitcom.
But the first season of Homeland was, start to finish, wonderful and surprising. In fact, its surprises were so quick and well-earned that you wondered what the hell the producers were thinking. They revealed not only that Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis) was working for al-Qaida, but also that he was going to blow up the vice president in a suicide mission. It's a testament to how taut and unpredictable Homeland was (and how amazing Lewis was in the role) that even if your head was telling you there was no way they'd kill off the main character and shift the series so dramatically during season one, you couldn't rule out the possibility.
That is very, very difficult for a series to pull off. I'd say the reason everyone involved with Homeland is holding an Emmy statuette is that they did the near impossible. (By the way, 24 killed off a major character at the end as well, which was a huge shock -- one that could have played into some viewers' doubts about what to expect.)
In any case, it's a brilliant scene that perfectly encapsulates why Homeland is great: writing, acting, execution and a short history of unpredictable storytelling that refuses to let the audience get complacent.
As Brody, explosives taped to a vest under his military uniform, was set to press the button, tension in the episode reached maximum impact. Then, almost beyond belief, he flipped the switch.
"Not flipping the switch would have been cheap," said Gansa in a Showtime online interview. But it was just a glitch, and Brody was going to flip it again -- stress and anxiety were on overload by then -- before getting a call from his daughter, whose voice seemed to shock him out of his suicide adrenaline rush.
That scene, and numerous tension-filled ones before it, was the reason so many Emmy voters and critics (including myself) smothered Homeland with love.
Season two began with a resounding bang as well, ratcheting up the tension immediately and -- as it daringly had in the past -- careening through story twists and reveals with abandon. In fact, the second season had a major reveal in the early episodes: The CIA found Brody’s suicide tape, and intelligence guru Carrie (Danes) busted him prematurely, forcing the agency to turn Brody into a double spy. Hell, they could have made that the entirety of season two, but it's not the Homeland way, which is admirable.
All of this is thrilling, of course. But in the free-for-all ride that is Homeland, there have been some elements amiss. Brody's kids are mostly brooding or annoying. His former best friend, who took up with Brody's wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), when everyone thought Brody was dead, didn't have much to do after a while, especially as season two began. Some of the parts that weren't nearly as nuanced as the leads sort of clunked along, as baggage or afterthoughts.
That is, until the Nov. 4 episode, "A Gettysburg Address," which was such a dreadful mess it easily was marked the worst of the series' run.
Brody’s daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) has been having a not-very-dramatic relationship with the vice president's bratty son, and one night the two evade their security detail and go on a wild car ride, hitting a woman (predictably) who ultimately dies. That storyline, already spanning several episodes, is dreadful and being torn to shreds on the Internet. What Homeland doesn't need is a 24 situation where Jack Bauer’s dumb daughter keeps getting in harm's way.
Another weak spot is Brody's best friend, Capt. Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff), who had some good material when Brody's return set up a super-awkward tension because he’d been sleeping with Jessica -- but the writers mostly gave up on that and played up Brody's old buddies' suspicions that something was wrong with Brody. That led Mike to start a rogue investigation on a show that should know better than to dabble in such unbelievable material. Making matters worse is the speed at which Mike went from third wheel to useless part to loose cannon out to find the truth about Brody.
Those strands -- Brody's kids, especially Dana, and Mike's nefarious new ways -- are unmistakable red flags in the storytelling. However, what could be much worse is if the writers try to get Brody and Carrie, who had a fling in season one, back together. It was believable then because Carrie's obsession created a weird bond with Brody, but now it's utterly unbelievable because of the carnage that occurred during the rest of season one and early in season two.
It certainly looks like the writers are going in this get-them-together direction, which would trigger the biggest red flag of all. What Homeland can't afford is to have its audience lose faith in the storytelling, which has been smart, taut and sophisticated.
These new elements are the exact opposite.
Still, it's early in the season. Before ringing the alarm bells too loudly and warning of another 24, it's important to give the writers and producers a chance to tell their story fully -- then be judged on it. However, television is littered with series that aspired to greatness but crashed and burned into mediocrity (or worse). Right now, Homeland is a gem. Manipulative storytelling already has destroyed the reputation of The Killing, and if Homeland gets 24-ish or ends season two with some unbelievable cliffhanger, we might witness the fastest decline of greatness and biggest waste of potential in some time.
Please don’t blow yourself up, Homeland.