'Homeland' Red Flags: Will It Crash and Burn or Soar to Greatness?

The Hollywood Reporter
'Homeland' Finale Includes Extra Disclaimer Following Connecticut Shooting

Note: There are season one spoilers in this story and references to season two episodes that have already aired.

Few series have careened so drastically – with exhilaration and creativity -- from beginning to end of a season than Showtime’s Homeland did in its first season. The series about whether a United States Marine, held prisoner for eight years, is really an al-Qaeda operative ran the table at the Emmys, including best drama, and is looking to set itself up permanently in the pantheon of truly great series.

Ah, but it’s early yet.

It’s wonderful to get that hardware – and stars Damian Lewis and Claire Danes were both exceptional in their Emmy-winning performances – but true greatness is earned with time. Television is that living, breathing, endless story that is so difficult to keep sharp episode to episode, season to season. That’s why there are so few series that are unquestionable brilliant.

As season two moves onward for Homeland – it has been equally spectacular this year, following up on some jaw-dropping twists from season one -- some of the nagging worries I had about the show from the start have started to pop up.

And cause more worrying.

Look, no writer or producer should be judged on their past work (or, more accurately, have that work held against them as they forge on with a new project), but there’s no getting around the fact that Homeland co-creators and executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are tied to the Fox series 24, which seemed almost revolutionary when it first debuted in 2001 with its breathtaking pace, heart-pounding twists and creative use of multiple screens. However, 24 very quickly buckled under the weight of its promise and became, at best, merely an entertaining hour of television and, at worst, Fox’s finest sitcom.

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But the first season of Homeland was, start to finish, wonderful and surprising. In fact, its surprises were so quick and well-earned that you wondered what the hell the producers were thinking. They revealed that not only was Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis) working for al-Qaeda, but that he was going to blow up the vice president in a suicide mission. It’s a testament to how taut and unpredictable Homeland was (and how amazing Lewis was in the role) that even if your head was telling you that there was no way they’d kill off the main character and shift the series so dramatically in season one, your head also couldn’t rule out the possibility.

That is very, very difficult for a series to pull off. I’d say the reason everyone involved with Homeland is holding an Emmy statue is because they did the near impossible. (By the way, 24 killed off a major character at the end as well, which was a huge shock – one that could have played into some viewers’ doubts about what to expect.)

In any case, it’s a brilliant scene that perfectly encapsulates why Homeland is great. Writing, acting, execution, a short history of unpredictable storytelling that refused to let the audience get complacent

As Sgt. Brody, explosives taped into a vest he wore under his military uniform, was set to press the button, tension in the episode had reached maximum impact. And, almost beyond belief, he flipped the switch.

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“Not flipping the switch would have been cheap,” Gansa said in a Showtime online interview. But it was just a glitch, and Brody was going to flip it again – stress and anxiety were on overload by then -- before getting a call from his daughter, whose voice seemed to shock him out of his suicide adrenaline rush.

That scene, and numerous tension-filled ones before it, was the reason so many Emmy voters and critics (including me) smothered Homeland with love.

Season two began with a resounding bang as well, ratcheting the tension up immediately and – like it daringly had in the past – began careening through story twists and reveals with abandon. In fact, the second season had a major reveal in the early episodes – the CIA found Brody’s suicide tape and intelligence guru Carrie (Danes) busted him prematurely, forcing the agency to turn Brody into a double spy. Hell, they could have made that the entirety of season two, but it’s not the Homeland way, which is admirable.

All of this is thrilling, of course. But in the free-for-all ride that is Homeland, there have been some elements amiss. Brody’s kids are mostly brooding or annoying. His former best friend, who took up with Brody’s wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) when everyone thought Brody was dead, didn’t have much to do after a while, especially as season two began. Some of the parts that weren’t nearly as nuanced as the leads just sort of clunked along, as baggage or afterthoughts.

That is, until the Nov. 4 episode, “A Gettysburg Address,” which was such a dreadful mess it was easily marked as the worst one in the entire run of the series.

Brody’s daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) has been having a not-very-dramatic relationship with the vice president’s bratty son and one night the two evade their security detail and go on a wild car ride, hitting a woman (predictably) who ultimately dies. That storyline, already spanning several episodes, is dreadful and is being torn to shreds on the Internet. What Homeland doesn’t need is a 24 situation where Jack Bauer’s dumb daughter keeps getting in harm’s way.  

Another weak spot is Brody’s best friend, Capt. Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff), who had some good material when Brody’s return set up a super awkward tension because he’d been sleeping with Jessica, but the writers mostly gave up on that and played up Brody’s old buddies’ suspicions that something was wrong with Brody. That led Mike to start his own rogue investigation, on a show that should know better than to dabble in that kind of unbelievable material. Making matters worse is the speed at which Mike went from third wheel to useless part to loose canon out to find out the truth about Brody.

Those strands – Brody’s kids, especially Dana, and Mike’s nefarious new ways – are unmistakable red flags in the storytelling. However, what could be potentially much worse is if the writers somehow try to get Brody and Carrie, who had a fling in season one, back together again. It was believable then because Carrie’s obsession created a weird bond with Brody, but now it’s utterly unbelievable because of all the carnage that happened in the rest of season one and the early parts of season two.

It certainly looks like the writers are going in this get-them-together direction, which would trigger the biggest red flag of all. What Homeland can’t afford to do is have its audience lose faith in the storytelling, which has been smart, taut and sophisticated so far.

These new elements are the exact opposite.

Still, it’s early in the season. Before ringing the alarm bells too loudly and warning of another 24, it’s important to give the writers and producers a chance to tell their story fully – then be judged on it. However, television is littered with series that aspired to greatness but crashed and burned into mediocrity (or worse). Right now, Homeland is a gem. Manipulative storytelling has already destroyed the reputation of The Killing, and if Homeland gets 24-ish or ends season two on some unbelievable cliffhanger, we may witness the fastest decline of greatness and biggest waste of potential in some time.

Please don’t blow yourself up, Homeland.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com