Feeling too much at home with Homeland

If the new US drama induces a sense of déjà vu, that’s because it’s drawn from the same old post-9/11 script.

David Bowden

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As the members of hacker-group LulzSec – who this week discovered their leader has been acting as an FBI informant – have found, it’s difficult to know who to trust today. Appearances can be deceptive. Those who are familiar can suddenly reveal themselves as hostile. Every new piece of information has the potential to be a shock revelation.

Worst of all, in this climate of uncertainty, your own sense of judgement is undermined at every turn. Amid the smoke and mirrors, from the shadows you fight to cling to the one question dominating your mind: is hotly-tipped new US drama Homeland a serious take on America’s precarious role in a post 9-11 world, or just another piece of stylish hokum?

Focusing on a Manchurian Candidate-style plot of US soldier Brody (Damian Lewis) returning from eight years of torture and captivity by al-Qaeda with question marks over his allegiance, Homeland is nicely set up to explore contemporary American paranoia and anxiety. Indeed, the CIA agent tasked with monitoring the returning hero, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is herself a pill-popping manic depressive who hides her mental fragility from her employers, giving her maverick streak a sense of genuine menace. With Mathison haunted by her failure to act on information that could have prevented the original World Trade Center attacks, and under pressure from her superiors to ensure Brody’s rescue stands as one of the few triumphs in the War on Terror, the tension mounts as to which of the damaged central characters will break first.

Behind the scenes, Channel 4’s heavily trailed new import certainly has an elegant pedigree. Danes, of course, has trodden a careful path between blockbuster and art-house since her breakthrough teen-idol roles in Nineties classics My So-Called Life and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet. Lewis is probably still best known for his convincing role as a Second World War US soldier in Band of Brothers. The supporting cast is full of reputable character actors such as Mandy Patinkin and David Harewood, best known for their respective work on Broadway and with the Royal Shakespeare Company rather than trashy TV. It has been created by Michael Cuesta who, after breaking through in 2001 with the subtly provocative L.I.E. (sexually confused teen boy befriends local paedophile), has gone on to work on some of the classiest shows around, including Six Feet Under and True Blood, as well his own gorily camp Dexter.

We’ve been here before though. 24 started life as a thrillingly innovative update on the action thriller before becoming an increasingly outlandish tub-thumping slice of US revenge fantasy as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq indicated the nation’s military might was not as it should be. Desperate Housewives and, more strikingly, Brothers & Sisters styled themselves as clever critiques of modern consumerism before revealing themselves to be as frothy and superficial as the soap operas they claimed to mock. The ongoing sense of unease from some over Mad Men, highlighted by long critiques in both the London and New York Review of Books, touches on exactly that sense that style can easily be mistaken for sophistication.

We are a quarter of the way into Homeland’s 12-episode run, and it’s fairly clear that it’s no masterpiece. The script’s often clunking exposition does not sufficiently cover some obvious plot holes and, while hardly gratuitous, the surprisingly high number of nude scenes does feel like the viewer is being offered some cheap titillation. Mathison may be a complex female figure by the standards of hit TV shows, but would perhaps be more interesting if her hard-drinking and promiscuity were not offered as symptoms of her mental frailty. While there are some neat jokes about Brody’s struggle to readjust to normal life after eight years in foreign confinement – he’s only just about heard of YouTube, and only in the context of hostage messages – there’s little sense thus far that the America he left has changed very much.

Some of this can probably be explained by the knowledge that Homeland is based around an earlier (and much more widely acclaimed) Israeli series. One can imagine much of what makes Homeland tick – tension over the freedom granted to military and security services in a state of near-permanent war, the celebration and victimisation of everyday soldiers, the significance of loyalty – might have more obvious resonance to that audience. While many of those issues should be equally pertinent to Anglo-American viewers, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a few years behind the times. Perhaps buoyed by the success of European dramas, picking up the original would have considerable value to a canny arts broadcaster, although there is a notable lack of appetite for material which shows how Israeli society explores its tensions and fears through its drama. This remake certainly hasn’t met with as much indignation from the people who muttered about The Killing’s US remake being screened on sister channel More4.

Still, this version is eminently watchable stuff and very capably made. It still feels far too early to tell whether it will justify 12 episodes, or whether the viewer will walk away disappointed by its twists and turns. Then again, perhaps there will be no twist. After all, Brody left a divided country with a spluttering economy and president determined to intervene in foreign wars and curb civil liberties, and has returned to much the same. A decade on from 9/11, perhaps it is not Homeland’s fault that the script sounds so familiar.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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