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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Series 2 of "Homeland" is merely the latest example of the maxim of the U.S. Television industry: when you're on a good thing, flog it to death.

They should have learned from Season 1 of '24' where ***SPOILER ALERT*** Jack's wife died in the final scene, and instantly made it's indelible mark on television... had Brody killed himself and the VP, we'd still be talking about it, but they indeed bottled it, and I haven't watched an episode since that first season! The only way for Season 2 to have continued was a brand new story, new characters, and a new approach, alas...

Still, with 'Homeland' now wrapped, let's hope executive producer Howard Gordon can concentrate on getting the much-delayed '24' movie greenlit by FOX so filming can begin next year as hoped... make it so HoGo!

I watched the first season but didn't bother at all with season two. To me it was (also) apparent that they put business before story and I agree 100% that killing off Brody at the end of season one would've been the best thing to do. But instead of making me look forward to season two I lost all interrest in it instead.

Thing is, where the story is at the moment, they've been fairly ballsy with regards to killing certain important characters who drove the behind the curtain plot. But in doing that have almost created a feeling that "everything is fine. We've won. Go back to your normal lives." And I think they've done It so that they can strip it all away in the final episode. Whether with a character death or major event. I have always felt though that the altering of the plot from having 3 dudes coming back home to having 1 (even though there was a quickly dispatched with 2nd guy) was the shows downfall.

I was just thinking of Game of Thrones as an example of a show that kills off characters when it needs to. I agree with the reviewer here with Brody being a great character but he needed to die for the sake of the story. Season two reminds me of 24's season two where things don't seem to matter and the plots fell like they've been thrown in there. When Brody's daughter was involved in a car accident it felt like the show was trying to create as much tension as possible. It's not enough that Brody has been working for terrorists.

OT - Where are the 'Sons Of Anarchy' and 'Boardwalk Empire' finale reviews ??

Could not agree more - I said the same thing when I was watching season 1. The end felt like it had been changed and cobbled together to lead on to an frankly unnecessary second season. Althought the second season has had it's high points, it just has far too many inconsistencies to be as absorbing as the original season.

I watched season 1 and loved it, I thought Brody was going to do it...but changed his mind. I have only seen the first episode of season 2 as of now, so I cant comment on that. However do you know what the show reminds me of?
Prison Break
That had a great first season. Then once they had escaped, they ran out of ideas of what to do with the characters. So they just locked them up in a different prison, so they had to escape again, and then they did it AGAIN! It soon ran out of steam, but the first series was a classic. I just got the feeling , even when watching season 1 of Homeland, that they were trying to make 24, without making 24. Everything felt very similar. But it was still pretty good.

I stopped watching Homeland after about 4 episodes. I'm not opposed to a bit of nudity but found that what was in the show was gratiuitous and was unnecissary as if they were using it to get ratings and gloss over the fact the show was a bit sh!t

How can some of you possibly comment when you say you haven't even watched season two? Season One was great, but regardless of the ending, it's still one of the best shows currently airing. Compared to drivel like Revolution et all, it's frickin' Shakespeare

Good article.

Totally agree with all points made.

Also, it doesn't help watching this Series when you know they are bringing back Carrie and Brody for Series 3 - seems like they dare not kill off Emmy nominated actors.
Shame as this shows story has more going for it than just the main 2 actors/characters.

I was totally disbelieving them bringing back Carrie into the CIA after being sectioned - just not realistic - even worse she gets free reign to go anywhere and do anything she wants - just to get her character central to the plot action, such as waltzing into interrogations and briefings and chasing the main 'villain' Abu Nazir - who by the way ended up becoming some kind of 2 dimensional bad guy who kidnaps the leading lady and gets killed in a chase...seems like they're not really thinking it through much as to what they could do - Homeland is seriously looking like it's losing it's way.

Series 2 just doesn't have that 'Special Ingredient' to make it must see TV - i found myself watching it just for the sake of it rather than being intrigued on what was going to happen.

Some good points. I've really had enough of Brody's daughter pulling on her index finger, tilting her head and then rolling her eyes. Also, Carrie is the second most annoying on television after Margaret from Boardwalk Empire.

There is not ONE American TV series where they do not milk it for all its worth.

When it comes to non comedy TV, America need to do one of 2 things:

1. A whole season should not be over 20 episodes. It should be no more than 8. This way, you can at least make up to about 6 seasons without running out of ideas and boring everyone half to death.

2. Keep the season at over 20 episodes and end it after season 2 or 3. This way you are sure to have a show that will stand the test of time and go down in history.

There is only ONE show I know that has over 20 episodes, and 7 seasons, that kept the audience entertained... The West Wing.

There is nothing wrong with Homeland. It is made so well it actually makes ME feel nervous watching it, because you can feel the dredd and terror that Brody is experiencing and he portrays it so well. It's a fabulous piece of tense television with a uniformly EXCELLENT cast. Wonderful stuff.

We should be fine unless Brody straps on the water skis.

This is complete bull! of course they couldn't kill Brody off in the finale of season 1. Otherwise they'd have no character plots and no storyline to even go off of in season 2; would basically feel like all the time we spent investing in the characters was a waste of time and that Brody plays no major part in Carrie's life. Your article is trash.

COMPLETELY DISAGREE. THEY CANNOT KILL OF BRODY IN SEASON 1 FINALE. WHAT A STUPID POINT OF VIEW YOU HAVE. AND THIS IS WHY YOU CAN CARRY ON WRITING POSTS ON THE INTERNET THAT NOBODY CARES ABOUT WHILST THE WRITERS OF THE EXCELLENT SHOW, HOMELAND, WILL ENJOY CRITICAL ACCLAIM AND HUGE FINANCIAL GAINS.

My only issue with Game of Thrones (TV show) is that killing off a liked character can mean people become disinterested with it, as it means that the focus has to move towards other (or new) characters, which the audience may not like as much.

Perhaps it works better in the books, where you have more time to get the most out of a character before they are killed off.

Game of Thrones has over a thousand named characters in the books. Martin says he's had to kill them off to make room for new ones, and even then he does so grudgingly and when they've exhausted their main purpose(many seemingly killed only to return later). Suspect Martin's balls are average size, and it's safe to assume they are probably hairy. Game of Thrones probably has the largest ensemble casts on TV, Homeland has a handful of leads.

The article has the right of it, after a pot boiling build up it was quite the anticlimax. When Brody met with the bomb maker again he should have told him he was crap at his job.

While I agree on some points, I have to disagree on others. I liked that they did NOT kill Brody off - but remember, they did have him TRY to blow up the bomb. He hit the button and the vest malfunctioned. That he hit the button was a HOLY SHYTE moment itself. Then you were able to see the desperation and confusion racking him during the phone call with his daughter. It was an important scene because it showed you how torn her was between his sense of (misguided) loyalty to Nazir as well as his love for his family who he had been kept from for 8 years.

Season 2 has had its missteps, certainly, but there have been great moments (albeit requiring some suspension of disbelief). There is a scene between Quinn and Estes in the finale that was riveting, and the big happening in the season 2 finale reminded you that while the show can get ponderous at times, in the end it won't pull any punches when it gets good.

Rest assured that the Israeli version has also gone downhill in its second season. Shades of 24 everywhere.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

That 3rd prisoner you thought was dead? He's alive! and now he works for the enemy!

TA-DAM!

Or does he?

TA-DAM-DAM!

"I DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE YELLING ABOUT!"

Miss Danes appears to have brought the writers from My So-Called Life with her for season two as its seemingly been mostly about hormonal teenage angst...

I loved the season 1 finale and him surviving gave us the great first start of season 2. Followed by some muddled 24like episodes, but some of those were not as stupid as they seemed once you watch the season 2 finale, which I thought was close to brilliant and redeemed a lot of shoddy plotlines.

I agree that the most coherent way to end season 1 would have been to let Brody die as a kamikaze, with the subsequent psychological breakdown of Carrie that once again would not have been able to stop a terrorist attack.

But I also think they could have gone into another plausible direction, even if less courageous: Saul could have checked Brody when Carrie warns him instead of dismissing her theory as fixation over Brody (after all he believed her with the timeline thingy and with the theory that the sniper was just a sideshow). He could have checked Brody just to be safe, even without really believing in what Carrie was saying, maybe not even warning anybody and just bumping into him and make it look like an accident. Thus he would have found out about the bomb and pinned him down while getting help from the other guards to disharm him. At that point the CIA would have realistically reinstated Carrie, while her victory would have been bitter-sweet because after all she would have much preferred being wrong about Brody, given her romantic feelings for him. Brody could have stayed for a second season for his trial and Carrie would have had a difficult (and non sexual) relationship with him as she interrogates him for the CIA to try to get out of him intel about Nazir. Brody would have had time to reflect behind bars, maybe even become a pacifist, or could have been devastated by having failed his kamikaze mission. Then at the end of season 2 he could have been sent to death row (or to a maximum security prison where we rarely, if ever, see him again).

In either case I would have kept watching the show, but the way it is now I won't because the plot is so evidently hinged on business rather than good, coherent, storytelling.

Agreed with every point and I stopped watching the show at about s2e07 when the car crash became the latest plot-extending trick

I agree that it would have been an interesting move for Brody to have died, but i disagree with the belief that homeland season 2 is a template. it is perhaps the best show on television at the moment, and still excites me. I think what keeps my enjoyment is the way that episodes where little or nothing happens still have momentum. It doesn't feel like there is no idea by the writers where the show is going. Far from it- as I feel is perfectly shown by the recent episodes of season 2. With season 3 on its way, homeland is one of very few shows that make me begin to wonder, what will happen next? where is this going? how will this affect the family? what will happen now that this character is out of the picture?

Also, if Brody had killed himself, what role could Carrie possibly have in the storyline? If Brody had died, then she would have gotten on with her life, but because of the decision not to kill him, we have been able to see that she is very much changed from the early stages of the show.

In my opinion, Homeland is far from running out of storylines. the events of the recent episodes could have such massive effects on all the characters involved, and I think that this shows it is such a great show, because to me the characters emotional journeys are just as important, and just as interesting as the terrorists are

LOUD NOISES

The Wire was pretty compelling television.

Homeland has 12 episodes per season, not 13. You make some good points, but I really don't think they did the wrong thing by not killing Brody - that's not 'where it went wrong'. That scene in the bunker was SO TENSE, I loved the fact that the show made me feel like that without a bomb even going off! They could have made season 2 as good even with Brody still alive. But there were other factors in play.

The fact is, TV shows get a LOT more expensive to produce the longer they're on the air. Fees for everyone involved go up each season. So chasing ratings was always going to happen. Nothing to do with which characters are alive and which ones aren't. We'd still have had to watch a ridiculous scene in a wood with someone breaking a man's neck while rolling around in mud...

The Wire had the 'advantage' of having no audience to speak of, so was free from commercial constraints

So how do you feel now that season two's finale has passed?

Totally, totally agree. I watched the entire first season in a very short space of time and thought it was fantastic- and then felt completely let down at the end. It was like all suspense had been taken out of the show. And I couldn't even make it through the first episode of season 2 as I couldn't help thinking brody should have died. I was convinced he should have decided not to blow up the bomb and then have been discovered and blown it out of panic, I think it would have been much much more powerful. Such a shame. But at least there was one good season.

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