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john doyle: television

Well, peaches, it's a great week on TV. Yesterday I was telling you about the sexy loopiness of American Horror Story and the arrival of the FX channel in Canada. Do yourself a wee favour and check in out. The channel is free for the next while.

And do you mind if I call you "peaches"? Chill. Don't call the cops because of a little familiarity. There's way to much paranoia going around.

Anyhoo, there are certain shows that arrive on the upper reaches of cable, and if you have any sense, you'll seek them out because sometimes that's where the great quality is – the shows which treat you as a thinking adult, not a halfwit with an adolescent attention span.

Homeland (SuperChannel, 10 p.m.), coming from Showtime in the United States, is certainly one of the two or three exceptionally good series to arrive this year. It's a paranoid spy drama set emphatically in a world where terrorists lurk. And rich in nuance, smart and with electrifying performances, it's the anti- 24.

We open in Iraq. A CIA analyst named Carrie (Claire Danes) is trying to interrogate an Iraqi man who is just about to be executed. She wants to see him because he claimed to have information useful to the U.S. Calling her CIA bosses in Washington, she pleads to have the execution stopped. A smoothie back at HQ says, "No. We don't dictate law to the Iraqis any more."

That's a key quote. This is the post-Iraq War, withdrawn-from-Afghanistan world. A fragile peace is presumed and the certainty of the terrorist threat wobbles. Nobody is sure about anything. People are moving on. Others are deeply troubled and scared.

Months later, Carrie is back in the U.S., a pill-popping wreck trying to keep her job. Along comes news that one Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), a U.S. sniper captured in Iraq and believed dead, has been found and is being returned to the U.S. The viewer sees brief and unsettling flashbacks of Brody being tortured. "An American hero is coming home," says Carrie's boss.

Carrie's not so sure. She's got an informed feeling that Brody might have been turned into a spy, possibly a sleeper terrorist, in Iraq. Nobody wants to know – it's hero-homecoming time. Meanwhile Brody's wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin, the stunning alien boss on V), who has moved on to a relationship with her missing husband's friend, is an emotional cauldron. Simultaneously dreading her husband's return and, by instinct, elated, she's terrified of him.

Certain parties begin monitoring Brody's home life. Certain other parties don't know about this. Carrie's boss (Mandy Patinkin, at his troubled-soul best) is very uneasy. There are the big politics of the CIA and the government, and the small politics of Brody trying to reintegrate with his family.

Most TV dramas about spies, cops, agents and terrorists simply legitimize the view of the authorities. AMC's conspiracy thriller Rubicon was a cable drama that reversed that approach, and Homeland is another. It's creepy and absorbing, and it captures the truly tawdry quality of spying. Homeland has a touch of the disturbing voyeurism captured in Francis Ford Coppola's movie The Conversation.

Only fine actors could carry off this very adult, very thoughtful entertainment about loyalty, suspicion and regret. Danes is wonderfully solid as Carrie, and Patinkin is exceptional, but the show belongs to Lewis. The short-lived NBC drama Life gave some sense of his great presence and fierceness. Here, he's magnificent as the flawed, flinty and possibly dangerous American hero coming home.

Anyhoo, peaches, it is very good and it's the anti- 24 because, where that show pushed a frantic patriotism, this one stares glumly but compellingly at the United States under threat and asks questions about patriotism.


Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays (CBC, 9 p.m.) enters a new phase. Patricia Rozema directs the next batch of episodes and there are several guest stars appearing over the next few weeks. Michael (Matt Watts) is still in therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatrist David (Bob Martin) is still seeing him but, tonight, Michael has done a runner and David is frantic. Michael is holed up at home, where his dad (Michael Murphy, who is great at the deadpan weirdness) tries to cope. Mind you, David is so worried about Michael he snaps at another patient who is mourning the loss of her cat, and stares balefully at a young patient who goes on and on about her diet. This brings back my initial impression that the show's female characters are crude caricatures, but maybe some of you find that funny. In next week's episode, Sandra Oh appears as a New Age therapist.

Check local listings.