When watching “Homeland,” Showtime’s new “24”-esque political thriller, it’s easy to forget this is an episode of television and not a full-length action movie. The cinematic quality of the camerawork and the masterfully crafted story come together to form a style similar to that of director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). However, “Homeland” is no standalone work — it is the beginning of what could easily become the best new drama this fall.
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The show follows Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes, “Temple Grandin”), an unstable CIA operative who starts pursuing her latest bold theory when an American POW named Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, “Band of Brothers”) is suddenly rescued. Less than a year earlier, an Iraqi prisoner whispered in Carrie’s ear that a captured American soldier had switched sides. Brody, having survived brutal captivity for eight years, returns home as an American hero. Unconvinced and already dismissed by her superiors at the CIA for her impulsive tendencies, Carrie takes it upon herself to investigate whether Brody really is a living miracle or a sleeper cell agent working for the enemy.
The entire pilot would fall apart if it were not for the excellent performances from its cast. Carrie has moments of complete vulnerability immediately followed by showcases of powerful resolution, and Danes delivers on both fronts. Lewis gives an equally compelling performance. With very few lines, he still manages to fully embody his character, whose discomforting transition back into life at home after years of torture is unnerving to watch.
Fans of FOX’s seven-season political thriller “24” will certainly find similarities in “Homeland” — after all, creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are “24” alumni. But to say that “Homeland” is the new “24” would be a mistake. While Jack Bauer and Carrie Matheson have a few things in common (both are considered reckless by their coworkers and prefer to work alone), they are inherently different. Bauer knew how to take charge, and even when those around him found his theories to be a bit of a stretch, they usually listened to him. Carrie, on the other hand, seems perpetually on the edge of being fired. Her lack of balance and control stems not from a thirst for risk, but from a psychological disorder that both the audience and those close to Carrie are left mostly in the dark about.
Another aspect of “Homeland” that sets it apart from “24” and most serialized action programs is that it does not focus entirely on the urgency of the political conflict. “24” succeeded in its storytelling — keeping viewers on their toes at all times — executing grand action sequences and throwing in just the right amount of twists and turns. But its “real-time” pacing does not allow much room for stories outside Bauer’s mission to save the world. “Homeland” provides us with many interconnecting stories: Brody’s reintegration with his family, his wife Jessica’s (Morena Baccarin, “V”) attempts to piece her broken family back together and Carrie’s internal struggles and fragile relationships. “Homeland” also has the obvious advantage of airing on Showtime and is therefore not constricted by the level of censorship that plagues network television.
Striking a balance between a thrilling, topical plot and exploring complex relationships is something few dramas manage to accomplish, especially so early on. “Homeland” is essentially everything AMC’s cancelled “Rubicon” wanted to be: a compelling, well-written story that explores the moral ambiguities associated with America’s current wars. The premiere of this show marks the return of the smart serial action drama and successfully intertwines beautiful cinematography with raw human emotions captured by the subtle excellence of its cast.