The growing problem with Homeland

Feature Simon Brew 17 Dec 2012 - 07:01

Just one year ago, Homeland was the new must-watch show of US television. So what’s going wrong?

This feature contains spoilers for Homeland, for those who aren’t up to at least season 2 episode 11. 

Just a few months ago, Homeland appeared to be the new darling of American television. And that’s with good reason as well. Hinging on an instantly intriguing premise, which we’ll come to shortly, it boasted tight scripts, strong direction, and a cast of intriguing characters, backed up by some excellent acting performances. It swept the Emmy awards, earned impressive ratings, and, at thirteen episodes, the season length didn’t feel too stretched. 

Yet sadly, the premise is starting to feel that way. 

The origins of Homeland lie in an Israeli television show called Prisoners Of War. In the latter, three Israeli soldiers are returned home after seventeen years in the custody of their enemy. In the former, the focus is on one man, who’s been held captive for eight years. The unifying factor is that both shows follow how the former captives work their way back into everyday life, and how suspicions arise as to what they’re hiding. 

For Homeland, it keep things simple. Nicholas Brody, as played by Damian Lewis, returns home a national hero. CIA intelligence officer Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, thinks something’s up. Her boss, Saul, and his boss, David Estes, aren’t altogether convinced. 

For the large part of Homeland’s first season, it was the simplicity of the concept that really powered it. After all, it hinged on one question: has Brody (for this is a show where a character’s first name is roundly ignored, by everyone including his wife) been turned? Whatever else happened, it always came back to that. 

The problem was that we soon had our answer. By the end of the first season, the answer was yes. He had. To the point where he walked into a room with the Vice President of the United States, wearing a suicide vest. Granted, there’d been a suspension of disbelief required to get him into that situation, but it still worked in the context of the show. The season one finale had all the pieces expertly lined up in place. 

However, if you want to track down where Homeland started to go wrong, it was right there, in that finale to season one. At the point the show most needed its courage, it bottled it. I feared it watching the episode, and with season two almost done, I’m now convinced. Had Brody detonated the bomb at the end of that episode, Homeland’s first season would have been talked about for decades. But he didn’t. Because if he’d done that, Damian Lewis would have been out of season two. 

Sadly, as a result, it’s the episode where the business needs of the show overtook the creative ones. I think Homeland had one or two problems before: I can’t say I was always convinced by quite how the relationship between Carrie and Brody developed (the cabin episode in season one, loved by many, left me a bit cold), but at least there was something to it, and a strong argument that could be had either way. But letting Brody live at the end of season one was, I fear, a fatal error. The desire and need for a season two, to squeeze as many episodes out of the concept, has at the very least undermined every episode I’ve seen since. 

Pretty much everything seemed to matter in season one. In season two, the show’s producers have dug into their experience on 24, and come up with decent enough plots that feel that they’re in the wrong show. And the questions are much less interesting as a result. Instead of asking whether Brody is a threat to national security, we’re left questioning whether his daughter will be prosecuted for her part in a car accident. Rather than Brody’s wife’s relationship with his ex-fellow solider Mike being a constant source of tension and unease, threatening to rip his entire family apart, it’s accepted. He’s Uncle Mike. He’ll take you to the safe house, where you can moan about breakfast cereal. 

In the absence of anything else massively compelling, a special folder of basic terrorist plots has been reached for. So, we’ve got a mysterious new boss with an ulterior motive. We’ve got a once-brilliant and elusive terrorist now seemingly on speed dial to every episode. And we’ve got Brody doing something in politics that doesn’t seem to be going very far. 

Oh, and there’s that mole. It feels like hunt-the-cylon all over again. 

The problem is that it’s a bunch of questions that, while entertaining, I’m far less interested in the answers to. The key plots certainly have nowhere near the magnitude or gravitas of the issues that were driving season one. And I can’t help but fear that the great lost season two of Homeland would have been the one where everyone has to deal with the aftermath of a suicide that logically should have happened. 

However, that would have meant sacrificing the lead character in a big new show. Such a move would have been a huge gamble, threatening the potential lifespan of Homeland. But then, some stories surely end earlier than others. Even appreciating that Homeland works on thirteen episodes a season instead of twenty-two or twenty-three, it’s a finite story. Furthermore, it’s a finite story that feels like it’s been told, leaving us groping around in the appendices for new angles on everything. 

I’m not sure I buy that it’s a single season show (even the Israeli original is up to season two). I just feel that, twenty-three episodes in, the most interesting narrative strand left is a mole hunt.

There’s no getting away from it: Brody should have died. Pretty much every fan of Homeland I’ve spoken to feels the same way. And while Homeland is still an entertaining show (and occasionally a brilliantly-directed one), it feels a lot more cartoony now, content to get two or three more seasons out of following the 24 template, rather than having the courage of its original convictions. 

Of course, come the big finale, all concerned may pull something groundbreaking out of the proverbial hat, and make the show vital again. But while Brody has a Jack Bauer-branded invincibility cloak around him, I just can’t see how that could happen. 

As things stand, for twelve episodes at least, Homeland was utterly compelling, often quite brilliant drama. Right now? It’s a good way to fill an hour at a time (which in itself isn't something to be sniffed at). Sadly though. that’s the price it paid for letting a big story point be decided in an Excel spreadsheet, rather than in a word processing document.

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