There has been debate lately about whether “Homeland” has recovered from its weak second season, or whether it has gone down the drain for good, or whether Carrie and Dana’s rhyming cryfaces are a brilliant example of product placement by the lemon industry.
The ups and the downs of a TV series always stir strong opinions and counter-opinions and absurd efforts to come up with ultra-counter-opinions, especially in our era of weekly recap reviews. The polls on “How I Met Your Mother,” for example, seem to roller coaster predictably every season. But shows like “Homeland” are particularly closely scrutinized and judged because they were so ambitious to begin with. In its first season, “Homeland” promised us a brilliantly written drama that would move TV’s take on terrorism a few major steps forward, well beyond the cut-out figures of “24.” It promised, and we believed.
Well, it’s time to let go of that early hope. The dream is over, even while Carrie’s nightmares continue. The show is no longer the acute study in ambiguity of season 1, which gave us a hero and a heroine who knew each other extremely well, but then didn’t know their own selves at all. Those 12 episodes were expertly balanced between character drama and suspense, and they had a satisfying amount of emotional realism. They were unforgettable.
Carrie, played with unexpected depth by Claire Danes, was in love with her country as well as with a terrorist. She was torn and guilt-ridden, on top of her bipolar issues. As a symbol of America’s war on terror, she represented a great antidote to the far more simplistic Jack Bauer. And Brody, played with cool unknowability by Damian Lewis, was a fascinating variation on and deepening of the contemporary terrorist: a victim of profound torture, a lost soul, and a possibly brainwashed Marine sergeant.
The show was a thrilling brain tease, in a way, as viewers had to continually evaluate the characters’ allegiances. It quickly won respect from all corners, including the Emmy voters, who gave the season top prizes for best drama, best actress and actor, best casting, best editing, and best writing.
Now, “Homeland” isn’t that series anymore. “Homeland” is no longer that shrewd, carefully plotted drama that, rather than toying with good and evil, toyed with the finer shades of gray. In season 2, “Homeland” began to lose its head, throwing Carrie and Brody into a love affair only moments, it seemed, after she had despised him and had him captured. The plot twisting got manic, in the manner of “24,” which guaranteed a game-changer in every hour by the end of its run.
And this season, the first three episodes were simultaneously rescued and ruined by a Saul-Carrie twist that didn’t quite parse, if you went back over the episodes. No matter how many times Saul says his link with Carrie was “all an act, part of the plan,” the big turn in episode 4 seems jury-rigged. Carrie and Danes’s performance have lost any subtlety and gotten repetitive, and Brody’s story is too obviously just tacked on. He probably should have left the show after the first season.
But sometimes, we need to re-gauge our expectations, rather than hating on a show that has disappointed. That’s my current feeling on the “Homeland” debate. It remains an entertaining and sometimes artful series, qualities that compensate for so much of the overwrought writing and the storytelling missteps.
OK, so it’s not what it was and it’s not what it could have been. The show’s unpredictability has faded away, leaving many foreseeable narrative patterns. The men all seem to be sneaky, including the beloved Saul, and the women — particularly Carrie and Dana, whose paths have sometimes been parallel — are generally unhappy and misused. Carrie goes on her meds, Carrie goes off her meds. Dana trusts the wrong person.
But it’s the rare drama that, like “Breaking Bad,” can remain exciting and mysterious and careful for its entire run. When I step back and look at “Homeland” as a series without season 1, I realize that it’s a decent enough TV show. When I comb out my great expectations, I can see that it’s better than “24” — Dana, for instance, is not Kim Bauer and never will be — even if it’s not as good as, say, “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men.” Rather than holding my judgment hostage to an old standard for “Homeland,” I’m prepared to enjoy the show for what it is now that its glory days are in the past.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.