TV review: Homeland

Does the award-winning Homeland break new ground, asks Matt Hills, or is it full of familiar themes?

February 16, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole


arrives in the UK this week (Channel 4, Sunday 19 February, 9.30pm) after securing Best TV Drama Series and Best TV Actress at the Golden Globes. It therefore has the advantage of an established reputation: unlike new home-grown telly, US imports can premiere as pre-loved, already acclaimed and feted. Here, Damian Lewis plays Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, returning to America as a hero after years of al-Qaeda imprisonment, while Claire Danes - herself returning to TV duty - is intelligence analyst Carrie Mathison. Carrie fears that Sergeant Brody may have been "turned" by his terrorist captors, setting up a puzzle: is Brody an all-American hero or a dangerous traitor? As countless news cameras are trained on him, media celebrations of military heroism and patriotism are called into question. Perhaps Brody is not what he seems; perhaps the cookie-cutter "patriot" template won't fit.

But Homeland wants to do more than engage with public images, stories and politics; it's about private as much as public selves. Its central image is Carrie Mathison sitting at home on her couch watching surveillance camera feeds, obsessively scrutinising Brody's home life for terrorist sympathies. "Hello Big Brother", announces Carrie's spy-camera guy, and the words summon up thoughts of reality TV as much as of Orwell. Constantly watching Brody's family, Carrie is a CIA analyst who resembles nothing less than a dedicated television fan. In that regard, Homeland is implicitly about TV, about studying screen images of somebody else's life piped into one's own living room. Its sense of "home" is powerfully linked to symbols of television as a medium.

Loosely based on an Israeli drama, Prisoners of War, and hailing from creatives linked to 24 - Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa - Showtime's Homeland has perhaps inevitably been compared to Fox's high-energy, against-the-clock thriller. But it's far less cartoonish and hyperbolic than 24. Slick split-screen effects are reconfigured into the grainy bank of CCTV-style images gazed at incessantly by Carrie. Where 24 explored tough masculinity, Homeland aligns the viewer with Mathison's quest for truth. We start to study Damian Lewis' performance for telltale tics of guilt or innocence as the camera fixates on his glacial, traumatised facial expressions.

But Carrie is also not what she seems. Secretly taking anti-psychotic medication, she's a paranoid agent trapped in a paranoid thriller. This makes the show's basic premise feel like a potential lose-lose scenario: if Carrie is wrong about Brody then we're left with a cliched hysterical woman and some very reactionary gender politics. But if Carrie is right, then equally reactionary agendas of suspicion - justifying draconian, illegal security measures - could be reinforced by the series' storyline. Homeland's mission, should it choose to accept it, is to complicate these rather limited options.

The blurring of public and private isn't anything terribly new in TV drama, but it's an uncanny blend that has often been linked to scholarly concepts of "quality" TV. And the show's collision of twisted reality TV, spy thriller and soap drama gives it a strong feeling of genre hybridity - another frequent marker of what leading TV studies scholar Robin Nelson refers to as "high-end" drama in State of Play, his exemplary 2007 study of US and UK television. We're even told that Homeland means to be classy stuff via the detail that Carrie is a lover of jazz, with her musical taste being coherently integrated into the rhythmic, riffing events of the pilot episode.

However, while it looks like "quality" TV (edgily contesting stock media images of the hero/terrorist), much of Homeland's beginning revolves around strikingly familiar and generic pleasures. Carrie is, of course, a rogue genius. She follows her hunches. She enjoys eureka moments spotting details unseen by anybody else. She gets "face time" with Brody so that she can question him in person, something that grants the lead characters an initial confrontation no doubt demanded by screenwriting manuals, even if it would surely be more sensible not to allow Brody to set eyes on the analyst who suspects him. And she acquires vital information, thanks to last-minute, whispered revelations. Many tropes of spy fiction are clear and present, lined up predictably like chess pieces ready for the start of a game. Although Homeland promises to be surprising, challenging TV following the HBO model, on early evidence it delivers far more of a generic payload than its award-winning status might suggest. Of course, the reliance on tried-and-tested plotting could just be an initial bluff. Innovative drama slaying the sacred cow of patriotism, or more of the same old spy genre tricks? Like Carrie Mathison, we'll have to stay glued to the screen to find out the truth.

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