“Homeland” swept the Emmys in September for its thrilling first season. It was an unusual triumph for a new show, and Showtime’s first best-drama win. But then, as the second season unfolded across the fall, the tide seemed to shift. Ratings were high, but fans and critics — including this one — began to pounce on the logical glitches in the narrative. The pedestal-cracking blow: A “Saturday Night Live” sketch unforgettably mocking, among other things, the best part of “Homeland”: Claire Danes’s emotional performance.
Now, many of us are preparing our eyes for a bit of rolling on Sunday night at 10, when Showtime airs the second season finale. OK, so the CIA is letting a former agent they know is unstable take the lead on a mission — and fall in love with the enemy — to protect the country. That former agent’s family no longer seems to care about her. Meanwhile, the CIA has also trusted Brody, a sleeper terrorist, a congressman who does no congressman-ing, never suspecting him in the murders of Bassel the tailor or the vice president. And on and on, as I’ve detailed in the Globe along the way. The gaps have been getting wider with each eventful episode, with the kinds of absurd plot holes that made “24” a live-action cartoon.
One of the smartest pieces on the “Homeland” backlash — if that’s what a sudden failure of careful writing inspires — is on the The Atlantic Wire. Critic Richard Lawson praises the show as “wildly entertaining,” but, he writes, “It was never the unimpeachable hallmark of quality television that people are now implying that it once was. I mean, why else would everyone be so upset now if they hadn’t once thought it brilliant television? That’s a problem of expectations.”
I fall into the category of fans who felt that “Homeland” actually was much smarter — yes, brilliant, more or less — last season, that it was more HBO-ish than any other Showtime series. Obviously, “Homeland” is a genre suspense series about the CIA and secret operations, and not documentary footage. Even when watching the most authentic-seeming dramas about the police or the FBI or, in the case of AMC’s “Rubicon,” an intelligence think tank, some viewer suspension of disbelief is required. The most well-built of fictional scenarios inevitably need to be soldered together at certain junctures, to enable the greater themes — the human story. The first season of “Homeland” rested on a preposterous, “Manchurian Candidate”-like foundation, to some extent, but everything on top of that foundation was relatively tight and consistent. The pace was gradual enough to allow the writers to account for loose ends within the story line, to hold viewers in the moment of the show instead of leaving us to fall into the breaches on our own.
The result was a run of episodes that were masterful in their exploitation of ambiguity: Was Brody a terrorist, was Carrie insane, were both true? Was Brody in love with his wife, was Carrie in love with Brody, was Brody in love with Carrie? For stretches, each of these options seemed true. The extraordinary acting, too, supported these possibilities. The story line accumulated momentum heading into what was meant to be an explosive finale, and I don’t recall being plagued by questions of how we got there. Maybe I’m romanticizing the past — or just forgetting it, which is more likely — but my nonsense detector did not ring off the hook as Brody struggled to move forward with his murderous mission.
Series writers know that cable viewers in particular pay close attention these days; we are willing to do some work. They need to write to that.
This season, the writers have moved too fast. Major shifts occur weekly — turning Brody back into a loyal US citizen in a day, for example — which looks like a strained effort to keep us riveted. Unlike “24,” the characters on “Homeland” are rich enough to maintain our attention even when super-duper twists aren’t in motion. Have the writers forgotten that? Why not bring Carrie back to her sister and her father for an episode? Last season, Carrie’s mental issues were a secret; now that everyone knows, why not have more openly explanatory CIA conversation about the decision to keep her in the field? Would viewers really disaffect, if the script didn’t bluster forward at 200 miles an hour? They didn’t last season, when we spent a weekend with Carrie and Brody alone. That’s one of the virtues of cable: A TV writer can detour here and there, suspend time when needed, embellish rather than rush.
Series writers know that cable viewers in particular pay close attention these days; we are willing to do some work. They need to write to that. I do feel that “Homeland” is “wildly entertaining” right now, as Lawson put it. I am all about Sunday night’s finale, wondering if the show’s creators — including alums of “24,” the show that killed off a major character at the end of season 1 — will actually do in Brody. But still, I find myself missing what “Homeland” could be, and was.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert