The best one is back. Homeland (Sunday, SuperChannel, 10 p.m.) arrives for its second season just after picking up a passel of Emmy Awards and, of course, having the status of being a big favourite of Barack Obama.
Why is it an Obama favourite? Well, it’s a paranoid terrorism drama set emphatically in the present – in a post-Iraq War, withdrawn-from-Afghanistan world – that offers a nuanced, smart take on issues of allegiance, all with electrifying performances.
The point of Homeland, from the start, was its calm, hushed, paranoid realism. Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. sniper captured in Iraq and believed dead, is found and is being returned to the United States, an American hero. A CIA analyst named Carrie (Claire Danes) is deeply suspicious. She thinks Brody has been turned into a terrorist and is the sleeper that someone in the Middle East warned her about.
Stuff happened. By the end of season one, Carrie was in hospital, a pill-popping wreck. Now, Brody is a congressman.
This new season opens just after Israel has bombed nuclear sites in Iran. The Middle East is aflame. A hint of a new attack on the U.S. emerges. Carrie is recovering at home, her elderly parents trying to keep her away from the TV news. Brody is a smooth-talking politician and there’s talk of his name being put forward for the vice-presidency. Without giving too much away here, Carrie is dragged back into working for the CIA and Brody is visited by somebody who brings up the name Abu Nazir, the terrorist mastermind who had previously requested that Brody assassinate the vice-president.
It is sublimely rich in layers of conflicting approaches to the issue of terrorism and global politics. There are the major players here – Carrie and Brody in this strange dance of hatred and respect. Simultaneously there is also the matter of Brody’s deeply strained relations with his family. Brody’s wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) has achieved a very fragile peace with her husband, but dark forces lurk outside the marriage. And then there are Brody’s kids – there is a wonderful scene in which his daughter argues about the Middle East at school, a scene that illustrates the childlike understanding of issues that come from the media.
And then there is the layer of lethal office politics inside the CIA. Carrie’s boss (Mandy Patinkin, back and at his uneasy-soul best) is in the Middle East trying to make small alliances and tiny steps forward while there are mass demonstrations on the streets and great tension is in the air. Each layer reflects on the other, not just as plot but in illuminating how the relationships of family, friends and lovers inform the tribal wars that are the core of the complex story.
Danes and Lewis are formidably good. In the first episode of the first season Danes gave little flourishes of what was to come as her character would go mentally awry. There is a similar note here in the opening episode, a smile that comes out of the blue and insanely, it seems, when she is in a dangerous situation in Beirut. Lewis has a profoundly difficult task as Brody – a cocky man with multiple allegiances who is also, at heart, terrified. Both Danes and Lewis deserve every award bestowed on them.
Homeland is both trenchant television and terrific entertainment. It is biting in its take on American assumptions about Islam and the Arab world. It is pungent in its dramatization of acts of betrayal and their aftermaths. And it is fiercely devoted to a slowly rising level of tension in the storytelling that is utterly captivating. Obama has good taste and the Emmy judges were correct.
Also airing this weekend
Dexter (Sunday, TMN, Movie Central, 9 p.m.) is back and, as its followers will know, there is an important new twist. Through six seasons Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) had carried out his vigilante killing while doing his day job as a forensics guy for the Miami police department. Nobody knew about his killing mission. At the end of the last episode of last season, Debra Morgan, his tough-but-troubled adoptive sister and work colleague, caught him in the act. What proceeds now is a plot detour that careens convincingly through melodrama, cynicism and tenderness. As ever, there are beautiful flashes of humour.
Oprah’s Next Chapter (Sunday, OWN Canada, 9 p.m.) has a rare scoop. Winfrey goes to Charleston, S.C., to visit Stephen Colbert for an interview with the real guy behind the manic TV figure of The Colbert Report. Colbert rarely does this, preferring to stay in character at all times. Here, we’re promised, he speaks about his family and in particular about his 91-year-old mother, and he discusses Jon Stewart and talks about the creation of his insanely believable TV character.
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