In previous decades, TV heroes were near perfect or only slightly flawed—unless, of course, they were private investigators, in which case they were lovable crime solvers who used inside connections to help them occasionally skirt the law. But since the Millennium, television has undergone a fairly noticeable transformation. The main characters—it’s tough to call them “heroes” anymore—are often deeply flawed individuals. “The Sopranos” gave us a mob boss family man. “Rescue Me” offered an alcoholic with a mean streak. “Nurse Jackie” featured a drug-addicted nurse. “Dexter,” gave us a forensic expert who moonlights as a vigilante killer. “Breaking Bad” featured a terminally ill chemistry teacher who made a living manufacturing and selling drugs—not unlike his female suburban counterpart in “Weeds.” Even the dapper Don Draper from “Mad Men” had a past as dark as a solar eclipse and a present that allowed him to do unscrupulous things.
And the list goes on.
I don’t know what that says about American culture or life as we’re living it, but the trend continues with “Homeland,” the hit Showtime drama whose hero is a slightly psychotic CIA officer who self-medicates with personality disorder drugs obtained illegally from her sister, a doctor. This agent was taken out of the field and put on probation after she bribed someone to get into an Iraqi prison to meet with a potential informant . . . and caused an international incident in the process. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a loose cannon, but some might also consider her to be a loose woman—someone who uses sex, like drugs, to self medicate, and isn’t above dressing up to go to a bar and actively pick up a man for one night. Others might say, good for her, and to heck with double standards. Let women also be married to their jobs so all they have time for is an occasional one-night stand and a constant emotional drain. Either way, as we learn on the pilot episode commentary track, it also jives with someone who has bi-polar disorder.
The emotional baggage Mathison carries is what we’re told everyone in the intelligence business has been lugging around since September 11. She missed something then, and she’s not going to let it happen again. Wild-eyed and determined, she’s like some of the best PI’s from the ‘70s in that she too isn’t above bending the law (or circumventing it) to get what she needs to do her job.
After a prologue that shows what got her in trouble in the first place, we fast-forward to the present, when she’s late to a briefing for intelligence analysts. It turns out that a secret cell door was discovered in a recent raid in Iraq, and behind it was Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), one of two MIAs, looking wild and bedraggled as Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” as he’s pulled from his cell. He’s to be flown home eight years after he and another Marine went missing in action, presumed dead.
Cut stateside to a nude lovemaking session which (typical male fantasy style) puts the woman on top, her breasts exposed, and moaning and shouting in porn-star ecstasy. Then the phone rings. “Brody?”
“Homeland,” which is loosely based on the Israeli TV series “Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”), depends upon such cuts and juxtapositions for its edge, with a heaping portion of them coming from memories that Brody and other characters re-digest with regularity. By mid-season those interior flashbacks can grow a little tiresome, especially if they don’t reveal enough new information, but the story arc and main characters are fascinating enough to make you overlook any redundancies of style.
The narrative thrust involves Carrie going over everyone’s heads and setting up surveillance cameras on the cheap, dragging in people she worked with in previous operations. But of course there has to be a catch, or else it’s too easy for them and too simplistic for the audience. So it works out nicely that, because of money, they don’t set up cameras and microphones in the garage. Here, viewers get to see what Carrie cannot, and that gap creates further interest. It’s not terribly logical, though. I mean, every time the media reports a pipe bomb explosion or some other terrorist act-in-planning gone awry, it’s almost always in a basement or garage. So why wouldn’t they prioritize that area? I also personally wished for a bit more on the terrorist leader Abu Nazir storyline.
The episodes are mainly written by Alex Ganza and Howard Gordon (who both worked on “The X-Files” and “24”) and Gideon Raff (“Train,” “The Killing Floor”), so it’s probably no surprise that the structure is designed for tension and time-sensitive action. But we don’t learn as much about CIA fieldwork, for example, as we did about what goes on behind the scenes of a political campaign or at The White House in a series like “The West Wing.” All of the information is delivered on a silver platter. But the dialogue is smart, the scenes are crisply paced, and the focus on the volatile “hero” and her nemesis is driven enough by strong performances that few will care if the details seem lacking. Danes is downright compelling as the agent, while Lewis displays just the right amount of coiled tension that can spring at any given moment.
The supporting cast is spottier. Mandy Patinkin seems comfortable and believable as Carrie’s mentor and former superior, while Morena Baccarin (“V”) as Brody’s wife (who’s involved with another man, played by Diego Klattenhoff) manages to convey all of the conflicting emotions that a woman in her situation would experience. There are forgettable performances too, though, and I’d mention a few except (par-um-pum!) I’ve forgotten them.
The season arc follows a weave that shows the Pentagon and public view of Brody as a war hero, intercut with Carrie’s own suspicions and investigations, the Brody family’s adjustments to each other and the new public scrutiny, a submerged romantic triangle, and Middle Eastern princes and movers and shakers who could be moving money to fund the terrorist activities of a sleeper cell. And the key person that wakes the cell could be the Marine everyone thinks is a hero.
After a somewhat slow and straightforward start, during which, as I said, the creators seem compelled to lead viewers by the hand, Season 1 takes on a little more complexity in the late going, with enough twists to satisfy most viewers. There are more questions about Brody than appear at first, and that helps the series considerably.
All 12 Season 1 episodes are included on three single-sided Blu-ray discs, housed in a slightly wider Blu-ray case and tucked inside a rigid plastic sleeve:
The Good Soldier
“Homeland” isn’t rated, but it’s certainly not for the kids. There’s both-gender nudity, sex, strong language, and graphic violence (including torture). If it were a film, it’d rate an R. Total run-time is 664 minutes.
“Homeland” comes to home video via an AVC/MPEG-4 (20MBPS) transfer that uses a 20 MBPS bit rate. Some sections are grainier than others, but that’s to be expected with different locations and sets and washes used to suggest interior flashbacks. Colors in scenes that are intended to be “normal” are bright and adequately saturated, and the black levels are also sufficient. Detail is good for a TV series, though there’s not as much depth as I’d have expected.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. It’s mostly dialogue, but the soundtrack is clear and semi-robust when street sounds and other scenic effects pop up.
A commentary is provided for the pilot episode only, and in the early going it’s lively enough. Danes tries to make jokes that aren’t as funny as she thinks, but she’ll laugh anyway. Lewis seems reluctant to say much at all, even when writers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon—who handle the commentary chores with the two actors—try to prod him. Danes responds, though, especially when the duo talks about filming in Israel. In one town the merchants were so annoyed that they were filming that fistfights broke out, and in another town the film crew was pelted with rocks. There was a riot, and Danwes was quickly whisked out of there by the Mosad agent assigned to be her bodyguard. After an early spurt of information the gaps and silences increase. The question is, do you suffer through them for interesting tidbits like these? Or that the “finger thing” at the jazz club was a tech schout’s idea, replacing the script device that had the light bulb in her head go off when she was watching deaf people sign.
The rest of the bonus features are slight. There are deleted scenes on each disc, but no way to select them. That’s unfortunate, because they take awhile to load, one right after the other. Some are worthwhile because they provide back story information, while others are just alternate or extended scenes.
Rounding out the bonus features are two featurettes: “Under Surveillance: Making Homeland,” which feels more like a pre-release promo, and “The Visit: A Prologue to Season 2,” which feels the same.
Decent plotting and a riveting performance from Claire Danes—whose character is willing to risk everything to keep a man she believes is an Al Qaeda operative from committing the next big terrorist attack on U.S. soil—make “Homeland: Season 1” a winner.