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Television John Doyle: Homeland is back as a brilliant spy thriller

We need to have a meaningful conversation about Homeland.

It returns (Sunday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) for a fourth season and tops the list of a packed weekend of new and returning shows. Things are different now, which is why we need to talk about it. I mean, how do you really, really feel about Carrie?

See, when we were last inside the crazy world of Carrie (Claire Danes), Brody (Damian Lewis) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin), Brody was killed. Stone dead. Now, Brody and his enthralling, complicated brood have, obviously, exited Homeland. Are we okay with that? No more charming, complicated wife, played so deftly by Morena Baccarin. No more teen angst from Brody's daughter, Dana.

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This season, Homeland is remade, relaunched and it distinctly resembles an old-school spy drama, but set very much in the contemporary world of drone strikes, Afghan militants, Iraqi police forces and, of course, the Americans trying to figure out everything. It is, in a way, the Carrie Mathison Show. A risky move, but on the evidence of the first two hours, finely executed.

We meet Carrie now toiling as the CIA chief of station in Kabul, and about to give the go-ahead to a drone strike. The intel says a Taliban leader is hiding in a farmhouse in North Waziristan, Pakistan. The strike goes ahead. High-fives all 'round. There follows some interoffice business, establishing that Carrie is working with possibly unreliable people. Next we meet Saul, now working as a consultant. He's bored out of his mind at a meeting and decides to speak the truth. His boss isn't happy, telling him he is now in the business of making money, not saving lives and eliminating enemy spies.

And then the core of the story emerges. That drone strike hit a wedding party, not a Taliban leader. Little girls dancing, a bride and her mother embracing. There is a survivor, a Pakistani medical student named Ayaan (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi), who has phone video footage of the wedding and the strike. It goes online and viral. Carrie is in deep trouble.

What we have here is an amazing mess of trouble. There are two stunning sequences in the two-hour opening. In one, Carrie is confronted by a pilot, a guy who does what he is ordered to do. First, she thinks he has a thing for her. And then he says, "You! Do you ever feel sick to your stomach?" Then there is a sequence in which an exposed CIA agent operative is at the hands of a mob. Carrie is there but can't save him. Later, we look at Carrie looking at herself in the mirror. That familiar face, already so many times in pain and anguish, is trying to comprehend the horror she caused.

Without Brody, Homeland is distilled to a tense political spy drama. Some will savour it, while others will wonder if Carrie has recovered from that relationship with Brody. Also, she's a new mom and a highly unmaternal one. She is, as in so many areas of human emotion, clueless. And yet brilliant. Homeland, the series, perhaps less brilliant, but more nuanced, anchored in the matters of modern war and espionage. You, on the other hand might feel differently.

Also airing

Janet King (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) is a new Australian series that's presented to us by CBC as great TV from around the world. It's a good, absorbing legal drama but not in the same league of excellence as The Honourable Woman. However, if you like your legal dramas with barristers wearing wigs and spitting harsh words, it's the business. We meet Janet (Marta Dusseldorp), a senior lawyer, returning from maternity leave to find that the the Department of Public Prosecutions isn't as she left it some months earlier. There is enormous pressure to secure convictions quickly.

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Also, Janet doesn't fit easily into this male world. She's a lesbian, a mother and, while driven, she's sensitive to shifts in public attitudes that are not reflected in the legal system. The first episode seems dense, in part because Janet King is a spinoff from another Australian series and viewers are assumed to know the world into which they are thrust. But it's very adult in tone and superior to the case-of-the-week legal dramas that abound on the U.S. networks. There's a vast conspiracy being hinted at. And it's worth seeing how that plays out.

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