'Homeland': Is the new season an improvement?

The last two seasons of the Showtime drama, which stars Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, and Rupert Friend, were disappointing. Are the new episodes better than the past years'?

Joe Alblas/Showtime
'Homeland' stars Claire Danes.

Meet the new, improved "Homeland." After two disappointing seasons, the Showtime series' dramatic culmination of its original story has shifted the focus squarely onto Claire Danes' complex CIA operative, and simultaneously allowed the producers to shed more irritating elements (see Brody, Dana). What emerges, then, in a two-episode premiere and subsequent hour is a show that lacks the initial kick the program delivered, but plays like a smart, spare thriller – "24," without the James Bond-style super-heroics. "Homeland" might never be a truly great series again, but if it stays on this path it will be an eminently watchable one.

Admittedly, the show has a lot of recovering to do as it pivots to face a new threat. Not only is it without the character of Nicholas Brody (as played by Damian Lewis), but the death of actor James Rebhorn has deprived the producers of his talents as the father of Danes' Carrie Mathison.

Once again, though, the writers zero in on the war against terrorism in a manner that uncomfortably brushes up against real-world events. Carrie is serving as the CIA's station chief in Kabul when the season begins, having earned the nickname the Drone Queen. Still, the opener (written by Alex Gansa and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) offers a sobering reminder that aerial, push-button videogame warfare is not without its risks, including the sort of unintended casualties that can exacerbate relations between the U.S. and the Arab world, drawing an innocent student ("Life of Pi"'s Suraj Sharma) into the web of intrigue.

At that point, the CIA might be better represented by the acronym C-YA, with higher-ups scrambling to protect themselves. And while Carrie is our ostensible hero, viewers are quickly reminded of her ruthlessness in getting the job done as well as her history of flouting authority.

Hitting the reset button has also somewhat depleted the show's supporting cast, with fellow operative/enforcer Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) and Carrie's former mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) occupying different roles, and Friend's contribution expanding significantly to help fill the void. Fortunately, Danes is such a world-class talent she can carry the action through these early stages, as the ramifications of what has happened crystallize and spiral. (There is, however, one glaringly false note pertaining to Carrie's lack of maternal instincts.)

Although the rebooted "Homeland" is more serviceable than sensational – after the first year included an early endorsement from President Obama, who might be less enamored with this latest plot, given his current Middle East policies – the show does feel as if it has extricated itself about as well as could have been expected from the corner into which it had been written.

If that sounds like a tepid endorsement, there's still something to be said for a series that faces the complexities of terrorism not with super spies cloaked in red, white, and blue, but rather in nuanced and troubling shades of gray. 

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