If you can drag yourself away from figure skating, snowboarding, alpine skiing and the giant-slalom final, there are two big new series and one returning dazzler this weekend. They all have booming echoes of the divisive, politically charged United States we look at in awe these days.
Homeland (Sunday, SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) returns for Season 7. It will end forever after the conclusion of Season 8. It's very good, this one. Relentlessly paranoid, action-filled and perpetually aware of what Republicans in the United States like to call "the Deep State."
Last season saw the election of a female president, one deeply suspicious of forces inside many areas of the government, military and law enforcement that resented her election. She was correct, more or less. What we have in the opening of this season is a president described as "a fascist" and a thug. After the attempt on her life last season, she's locked up hundreds of people – military generals, spies and others. Our heroine Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is out of the loop and, of course, trying to surreptitiously figure out who is behind the manipulations that can lead a president to extreme action.
It's a superbly crafted spy drama at the opening – the first episode was provided for review – as we watch Carrie set up clandestine meetings, avoid no-goodniks and be distrustful of almost everyone around her. There is an angry urgency to it all, as it plays off the paranoia you can hear daily on Fox News. In this instance, there is the lividly loathsome Brett O'Keefe character, an alt-right media personality, who looks like Steve Bannon and rants like Alex Jones, the host of InfoWars. Now he's on the run, broadcasting secretly. Here's the thing – this alt-right crazy might just be correct in his paranoia. This season's Homeland fiction is extremely and gleefully connected to real events. Right down to the ominous mention of a special prosecutor.
Our Cartoon President (Sunday, The Movie Network, 8 p.m. and streaming on Crave TV) is an animated chucklefest about life inside the Trump White House. And that's the problem – it chuckles when in reality a lot of what actually happens is terrifyingly unfunny. Created in part by Stephen Colbert, the show has good, humorous bits to be sure, especially about Melania Trump. (Obliged to go on a "girls' night" with Karen Pence, the Vice-President's wife says, "You have that look on your face that says, 'I'm not from around here.' ") And Don Jr. and Eric have many adventures in goofiness. Trump himself is presented as a goofy dad, self-absorbed, boasting and none too bright. He's lovable. There is no sense of the tumult, backbiting and bickering that Michael Wolff has written about in Fire and Fury. Instead, it's Trump in bed watching Fox & Friends and Ted Cruz sneaking into the bathroom to use Trump's toothbrush. It's like Our Cartoon President was written for Trump supporters who find late-night monologues about Trump too biting and sarcastic. This is a woeful misfire for all involved.
Here and Now (Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m.) is the latest drama from Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) and arrives without much fanfare. It has been listlessly promoted by HBO and was not presented to critics at last month's press tour. Its status as an oddity is confirmed by the first few episodes. On the surface it looks like possibly captivating, serious-minded drama. Set in Portland, Ore., the characters are almost all part of an extended family. Greg (Tim Robbins) and Audrey (Holly Hunter) are parents to many biological and adopted children, most of whom are adults. One has a child of her own. The children are of various ethnicities and backgrounds and they share one thing – they are essentially unhappy.
What transpires in the first hour is built around a 60th birthday party for Greg. He's depressed, clearly, and his birthday speech is a mordant perspective on how people like him – progressive, optimistic, trying to do the best for others – have lost, and terror and hate have won.
The drama is deeply serious, and bitterly so. Obviously intended as a state-of-America drama, with its undercurrents about race, gender and empathy for others, it certainly begins with too much exposition to the point where characters feel like figures chosen to articulate different views about Trump's America for a superficial network news report. It's possible Here and Now will develop into something more engaging, gripping and truly dramatic. But on the evidence of its beginning, it is floundering to find a relevant perspective. In contrast, the spy-action of Homeland looks like scathing and vital commentary.