Homeland – the best drama this year

United States Special Forces raid a terrorist safe house in Iraq and, by chance, discover a Marine sniper who had gone missing eight years ago. American POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), has been tortured but seemingly not broken, and he returns home an instant American hero.

At the same time, CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes that there is an imminent threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, based on intelligence she gathered during a failed mission a year earlier. There she learned that an American prisoner of war had been turned by Al-Qaeda and will be used as a weapon against them. So is Brody the brainwashed potential assassin or a homecoming hero struggling to adapt?

It’s a plot close to the Manchurian Candidate mixed with The Conversation, but that just scratches the surface. Former Band of Brothers star Lewis portrays a potential terrorist and a man readjusting to society with just the right amount of confused menace, as more is revealed about the true nature of what happened to him and who he has become. Danes is unexpectedly brilliant as the self-destructive and paranoid agent who is secretly taking antipsychotic pills in between bouts of illegal surveillance. Aside from her CIA mentor and confidant Saul Berenson (a bearded and brilliantly doleful Mandy Patinkin) nobody else in the government initially knows about Carrie’s suspicions, as favours are called in and a covert investigation begins.

With all these subplots and side issues, it works as well as a commentary on the paranoid post-9/11 society, terrorism, the secret service and the nature of government surveillance as it does a straightforward thriller. Although the producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are veterans of 24, this is nothing like the explosive and over-the-top exploits of Jack Bauer.

It builds slowly and doesn’t make clear who is right or wrong from the start, so what comes over is a disconcertingly realistic portrayal of counterterrorism and a government trying to keep control. Much of the story is built up via flashbacks to Brody’s time in captivity suffering physical and psychological torture at the hands of terrorist Abu Nazir, but it’s as much about the workings of modern spooks as it is fundamentalism.

Of all the programmes that started in the U.S. 2011 fall season, this was by far the best and was acknowledged with a Golden Globe and critics’ awards earlier this year. Most studios fail to create something entertaining and intelligent, but Homeland does both and is pretty much superior to anything else you’ll see this year.

For Esquire magazine – click here for PDF – Homeland

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