Lies, obfuscation and exaggeration. The search for the truth, even when the truth seems unknowable. That's the TV menu this weekend.
Watching TV during the closing end of a U.S. presidential campaign is a bracing experience. Dense politics dominates everything.
On Sunday, CNN has two back-to-back specials. First up is Romney Revealed: Faith, Family & the Road to Power (CNN, 8 p.m.), which includes an interview with Mitt Romney who, we are told, "shares the lessons he learned while growing up in the public eye." Then it's Obama Revealed: The Man, The President (CNN, 9:30 p.m.) and it has CNN's Jessica Yellin speaking with Obama about "his ambitions for a second term."
It's unlikely either program will be as thoughtful as Frontline's recent The Choice: 2012, but both programs will be watched closely by many of those still trying to figure out the candidates. Amid the obfuscations and hype.
For all of that, another show dominates the weekend. That's Homeland (Sunday, Super Channel 10 p.m.) but it, too, is linked to the U.S. presidential race and all those tangled ideas about truth. They are the engine that drives the show and, of course, it is well-known that Homeland is a great favourite of Obama.
Most people who watched last week's episode had a jaw-dropping experience at the end. (This is a rare occasion when you're told to quit reading here if you don't want too much information.) It was a twist that seemed to come too soon, and involved terrorist Brody (Damian Lewis) becoming totally trapped in his own tangle of lies. "What's next?" the viewer had to ask. Brody as double or triple agent? And with his loyalty owed to whom? The show has officially been given a third season and one has to wonder where the plot can possibly go.
What makes Homeland so interesting, to Obama and a lot of others obviously, is how deftly it deals with issues of loyalty and faith in a time of much lying and officially endorsed deceit caused by national panic about terrorism. Carrie (Claire Danes) is the only one who instinctively knows the truth, and yet she is officially designated as mentally disturbed, suffering from bipolar disorder. Sometimes – and this is something a politician would savour – the truth is kept secret or covered up in order to protect a nation, a family or a government. All of this makes Homeland seem well-plotted, serious and pleasingly provocative.
And yet there are other ways of looking at it. Writing recently for the website of Al Jazeera, Joseph Massad, associate professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, heaped scorn on Homeland. He sees it through very different eyes. First, he notes that Homeland is an American adaptation of an Israeli TV series.
Then he notes the specifics of the CIA team tackling the Brody problem and the terrorism issue. The team is, he says, "represented by three top figures: the African-American David Estes, the Director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center; the American Jew Saul Berenson who is unsurprisingly the CIA's Middle East division chief; and the white Christian American Carrie Mathison, the female star of the show, who is a CIA intelligence officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center."
To Massad, this is all notable and important, a clue to the show's true dynamic. He sees Homeland as, first, "reflective of American and Israeli fantasies."
But his main point is this: "The racist representation of Arabs is so exponential, even for American television (and this is clearly the manifest effect of the Israeli Jewish identity of the show) that one does not know where to begin."
He then goes on to assert that Muslim men and women are demonized on the show. Finally, he scolds Obama for endorsing Homeland. In his view, it is just another one of those American TV series that are "equal-opportunity offenders in their racism against internal and external others."
So there. While we look at Homeland as high-grade entertainment dealing with issues of truth, lies and loyalty, others see it as an example of propaganda and dangerous nonsense. The fact that the U.S. president is a fan makes it even more dangerous, says a scholar. The truth, one supposes, means different things to different people. And oddly, that is what Homeland is about.
Also airing this weekend
The World According to Lance (Saturday, CNN, 9 pm.; Sunday, 10 p.m., CBC NN on The Passionate Eye) is another journey into truth, lies and obfuscation. It's a gripping and groundbreaking investigation, by ABC Australia, into the years of doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. Reporter Quentin McDermott was relentless in his search for the truth about Armstrong and painstakingly built a case by interviewing friends, colleagues, doctors and scientists, always aware of Armstrong's reputation for attacking those who undermined him.
One of the more devastating accounts is that of a witness to a conversation between Armstrong and a doctor after the cyclist was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Asked by the doctor about drugs he had used, Armstrong was obliged to be open and admitted to using, "[the banned, performance-enhancing drug] EPO, testosterone, cortisone, growth hormone and steroids."
Jaws dropped there, too.