Homeland: The Roaring Return of Claire Danes

Last night Showtime unveiled its newest series, a paranoid spy drama called Homeland, from some 24 writers. And what could have been a bit rah-rah is, in fact, strangely stirring.

I fully expected to dislike Homeland, as most TV and film projects that dare to conquer such big, bold topics as the politics of war often struggle and collapse under the weight of their own ambition. Usually they're too winky, too comfortable in a misplaced sense of whiz-bang smarts, as if simply naming a bunch of capital cities in the Middle East with cocky authority was enough to prove them savvy. I'm thinking of efforts like Rendition, a limp stab at important-issue soberness, or The Kingdom, an aggressively unlikable stab at... war porn, I guess. There's been this reactionary post-9/11 thinking that we need to craft something that is both an entertainment and yet still frames our times, there is a race to define our geopolitical, but secretly emotional, selves that has been, in the past, won by mostly blundering and uncritical thinkers, the ones chiefly concerned with winning.

So then what a strange delight Homeland is. Obviously the events of the story — Claire Danes plays a nervous CIA analyst who suspects that a rescued POW (Damian Lews) has been flipped by the enemy — could not really exist without the current desert bloodfucks we have going on, but there's something deeper and more universal at work in the series, based on the first episode at least, that lets it eschew all those obnoxious Timely War Fiction trappings that so many other projects fall prey to. Homeland manages to be smarter than that, against some steep odds.

I mean, is this show — this just-deep-enough look at paranoia and the way the omnipresent availability of information (internet!) makes any remaining mysteries all the more frustrating and scary — the first grownup program that Showtime has produced? Obviously the network has its Dexter and Weeds and whatever else, but those are cartoons; oftentimes badly drawn sketches of adults living on the fringes of a fake and all too forgiving society. They're what teenagers or stoned twentysomethings hope the real world is like, places that forgive and even encourage misbehavior and where consequence is usually nothing more than tart and ironic. There are no real stakes at work on those shows because Dexter and Nancy do not live in any sort of real world. There is nothing remotely Grownup about either, or about any of Showtime's other grim candy-coated novelties (the bafflingly stupid United States of Tara, the bafflingly insulting Big C, the bafflingly ugly Nurse Jackie). But Homeland, for all of its regular people doing everyday extraordinary, in the true meaning of the word, things, really does feel like a show about and for adult humans who have some sense of how the world actually functions. People, and other obstacles, are real and present and hard, but also they are not monolithic, they are complex and layered and all of that infernally infinite stuff that makes things interesting. This is something of a revolution for Showtime! They have never before put a smart show on the air, and yet here is this, this unlikely thing, doing popcorn smarts with surprising brio.

I say surprising because really this show shouldn't work. There's the above-mentioned stuff about current events programming rarely managing to feel either current or eventful, but there's also its curious lead. Claire Danes, she of the stubborn yet angelic (Baz Lurhmann put her in wings once, remember) features, a scorned and saddened Botticelli, is a tough nut to crack. I think she's struggled in the post-Angela Chase, post-Juliet years because no one is quite sure what to do with her. She radiates poise but still has the coltish mannerisms and voice of an eager Holyoke freshman — she always seems to be raising her hand to answer something. And that's been a charming quality in things as wide-ranging as The Family Stone or Stage Beauty, and even took on a thesis-like respectability in her Emmy-winning Temple Grandin, but it's never been quite convincing enough. She's always seemed like she's, well, playing at acting, the smart girl adding one more extracurricular to her CV.

But now here she is, on this first hour at least, successfully, more than ever before, putting that upper class nerdiness to work as a nerve-jangled and perhaps clinically insane (she swallows anti-psychotics like they hurt) woman who is convinced that this supposed war hero, rescued from the desert after eight years in captivity, is a dangerous sleeper agent. Of course, and the narrative demands this, she is really the only one who believes in this theory, and so she's out on her own, skulking around and furtively listening to wire taps. To that end there were several scenes of Claire Danes listening last night, and while if she didn't quite master the saturnine grace of Ulrich Mühe in the perhaps greatest-ever listening drama The Lives of Others, she did still manage to make it compelling. This is owed to the fact, I think, that you don't particularly like her character. And if Danes doesn't need to impress us, isn't desperate to show us and get us to love her refined bag of elegant tricks, then she can kinda let it all hang out. And let it all hang out she does, whether at a bar sadly hunting for a one night stand or, to fix a big fuck-up, lamely trying to seduce her stern but paternally adoring boss (Mandy Patinkin, TV's scariest actor).

What I'm trying to say is that Claire Danes is doing good work here. Really good work, in fact. Her character is brash and irritating, but because Danes plays her certitude with such, uh, certitude, you're willing to follow her down this particularly dank rabbit hole. In a weird way, she's perfectly cast. And luckily Danes is aided by a strong supporting cast. Patinkin is as withholding and dire as ever, which is a good thing. Damian Lewis, who played an earnest and true all-American hero in HBO's schmaltz masterpiece Band of Brothers, has let himself age and crag up a bit just enough that there's some visible darkness lurking under his square exterior. (The fact that Lewis is secretly a Brit adds to that disconnected effect, I think, but I do also think that he's doing some actual acting here.) And it's nice to see Morena Baccarin not playing an evil alien or a space hooker for once — here she's the dutiful wife who thought her husband dead and thus began a romantic affair with a good friend of his. Her particular narrative is a bit Army Wives for me, but watching her maneuver around her war-damaged husband is certainly engaging.

Is Lewis's character in fact bad, turned to the dark side by a sought-after terrorist? The first episode definitely didn't make it plain either way, though I'm guessing there's some middle ground inbetween that the show is aiming at. I'm not quite sure how you sustain a whole series based on this one central mystery, but that problem is not original to Homeland. If other shows are allowed time and forgiveness to figure that out, so too should this one. Because for my money it's the most interesting show to debut this season, and for the Danes factor and other reasons, maybe the most impressive series in Showtime's spotty career. I'm hooked.