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Claire Danes in 'Homeland': The Futon Critic first look

Claire Danes stars as a CIA officer battling her own demons, who becomes convinced of an Al Qaeda plot to be carried out on American soil.

By Brian Ford SullivanThe Futon Critic / September 30, 2011

Actress Claire Danes arrives at the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 18.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters

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HOMELAND (Showtime)
(Sundays at 10:00/9:00c beginning October 2)

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The network's description: "HOMELAND is a psychological thriller that tells the story of Carrie Anderson (Claire Danes), a CIA officer battling her own demons, who becomes convinced that the intelligence that led to the rescue of Scott Brody (Damian Lewis) a U.S. soldier who had been missing and presumed deal for nine years, was a setup and may be connected to an Al Qaeda plot to be carried out on American soil. Mandy Patinkin will portray Saul, a veteran CIA Division Chief who is Carrie's (Danes) boss and mentor. HOMELAND is written by Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and Gideon Raff, and is based on Raff's Israeli television series "Prisoners of War." The series will be produced by FOX 21."

What did they leave out? Laura Fraser played Jessica Brody in the original pilot only to be replaced by Morena Baccarin.

The plot in a nutshell: Dogged CIA counterterrorism officer Carrie Anderson (Claire Danes) spends her days in the Middle East, cultivating assets in the war against terror. When one such fellow is about to be executed, he confides the unthinkable: an American prisoner of war has been turned. Months later, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is discovered by the Marines - eight years after being declared dead. And while Carrie - back in the States as a result of her latest bout of rule breaking - sees the connection, her boss, Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood), will have none of it, preferring to cash in on the tidal wave of press Brody's rescue creates to rally American opinion behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Left with no other option - and against the wishes of her mentor Saul Berenson (an amusingly owlish Mandy Patinkin) - Carrie opts to investigate Brody herself.

And so, with the help of surveillance guru Virgil ("The Shield's" David Marciano, in a fun turn), Carrie illegally gets eyes and ears on Brody's home. There they find a host of domestic foibles: Brody's wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) has since gotten involved with his best friend Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff), daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) is mired in teenage rebellion and son Chris (Jackson Pace) barely remembers his dad - all of whom try to put a brave face on in front of Brody. What they don't find however is hard evidence that Brody has been turned. Sure there are some clues: Brody has nightmares in which he screams in Arabic, he's developed a sexual dysfunction and his mind sometimes drifts away mid-conversation - all of which can be attributed to his years of being tortured and held in captivity. Ultimately of course there proves to be more going on than meets the eye with Brody... and Carrie.

What works: Once all of its deck chairs are in place, "Homeland" proves to be compelling stuff. Subsequent installments (episodes two and three were provided for review beyond the premiere, which has been available online and on demand for the past two weeks) paint a much murkier picture than the pilot as the concept that Brody has "turned" isn't exactly black and white: even if he has been reprogrammed so to speak, being reunited with your family presents a countereffect. Carrie likewise is by no means a clandestine figure either: her incessant need to prove Brody has been turned is fueled by a secret bipolar disorder, a condition she has to hide from the agency or risk getting booted.

It ultimately creates a psychological tug-of-war between the two as she perpetually watches his life like a "Big Brother" reality show, compulsively reading into every little thing he does; while he struggles to acclimate back to his old life, the horrors of what happened to him a constant companion. And both their paths lead to some dark places: Carrie rarely eats, using anonymous sex to escape herself, while Brody is a box of irreconcilable demons, wrapped in the packaging of his old self. There's a scene in the third episode that turns said dial to a 10 as a seemingly sweet, intimate moment between Jessica and Brody quickly devolves into a horrifying, what the hell is happening exchange - all while Carrie watches in disgust. Credit Danes, Brody, Baccarin and company for taking us into those places without batting an eye and likewise Gordon, Gansa, Raff and company for pushing the boundaries - exactly what pay channel programs are supposed to do.

What doesn't: Part of me doesn't like how flashbacks provide the counterweight to Carrie's investigation. Since Carrie's evidence has to perpetually be inconclusive - a gotcha moment would obviously change the show's entire dynamic - the carrot for the audience comes from Brody's experiences as a prisoner, experiences that suggest that he really may be playing for the bad guys. Granted, within the context provided above, it's not completely clear cut but there's more than enough to overshadow the straws Carrie tries to grasp at. And of course when tangible things do go down, they coincidentally take place in the few blind spots Carrie's setup has. I can live with one or the other but having both starts to strain credulity. The pendulum ultimately may swing back but for now there's a lack of balance to the show that bumps me.

The bottom line: All in all, despite its flaws, as noted above - "Homeland" is still pretty compelling stuff.

Brian Ford Sullivan blogs at The Futon Critic

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