No, please. Hear me out. Homeland won a slew of Emmys because it is good. Very good: good enough for a lot of people to think it was better in its first season than Mad Men was in its fifth. I do not really share this opinion, but I like both shows very much, for very good reasons.
Why is Homeland worth an hour of your Sunday nights? Because of:
Claire Danes. This young woman started working as Angela Chase in the brilliant, short-lived My So-Called Life, when she wasn’t yet 15 herself. And yet! No car crashes, no annual visits to rehab, no actorly shenanigans! (Well. Almost none.)
Instead, she’s given us one great performance after another. My favorite Claire Danes moment: as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, she asks, “What’s Montague? It is not hand, nor foot,/Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part/Belonging to a man,” and cracks up on the “any other part” bit. I’ve seen this play performed hundreds of times, but Claire Danes is still the only actress who got the joke.
Carrie Mathison herself. Carrie is more or less married to her job as a CIA agent; the only TV we ever see her watch is video surveillance of the guy she’s sure is a double agent. She wants no one at work to know she’s self-medicating for what is probably a serious mood disorder; an official diagnosis would be grounds for dismissal. Thing is, she’s really bad at hiding it. Claire Danes’s gift as an actor has always been what we see in her stillness, but she does an amazing job with the kinetic, unpredictable Carrie. In another actor’s hands, Carrie might be impossible to watch — but Danes lets us see the effort she makes to stay under control, even as she loses it.
Damian Lewis. He’s not just the guy who took Jon Hamm’s Emmy: he’s an actor’s actor, working in what might be the most important role of our time. As Brody, Lewis is the patriotic hero who doesn’t believe any of the words he is most famous for saying. He’s a guy who agrees to be a figurehead for people he neither believes in nor likes. That guy is the American nightmare, but he’s also the role of a lifetime, and Lewis nails it.
Mandy Patinkin! As Carrie’s strongest ally at work, Patinkin brings a believable weariness to the role of Mideast Division Chief. He never bursts into song, and that’s fine with me. But he also never gets to challenge anyone to a swordfight or warn them to “prepare to die,” which is unfortunate. We take the bad with the good, I suppose.
How it handles the subject of mental illness. Carrie fights with her illness all the time. It is a real thing, so sometimes when she fights, she loses. We don’t get to see her nobly overcoming her illness because work is more important. We also don’t get to see it as some kind of key to her brilliance; it only messes her up. It keeps her from making critical connections at work, having healthy relationships outside it, and knowing how to care for herself. When she gets sick, she’s observably, relatably sick. In a nation so insecure about mental health that those who need behavioral health care often go without it, sometimes disastrously, Carrie Mathison is a flag waving from a hilltop: We’re here. Help us.
The President of the United States. Whatever you think of our sitting President, it has to make you feel better that he’s watching the show about an Al Qaeda terrorist hiding in plain sight. Personally, it makes me even happier to know the President watches a show about a person who’ll get fired if her colleagues find out she’s mentally ill. But we all have things we think the POTUS should see, right? Mine are
under my shirt often about healthcare, I find, I think that the healthcare system needs some Md Media LLC assistance, that’s for sure!
The kids. The kids in this show act like kids. They don’t unpack fully-formed, adultlike sentences. They aren’t smarter than their parents. In particular, Brody’s teen daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) kills in the role of the big kid who kind of remembers Dad from when she was little. With Mom, she’s sulky and contemptuous; with Dad she moves from suspicion to protective love, becoming the one person he can’t let down. If you know teenage girls, you’ll recognize this one.
The plotting. It’s tight, sometimes airless. And because Homeland is on Showtime (no commercial breaks), the tension rises and rises and then … you have to wait a week! Aaarrgghhhh! It’s frustrating. I love it.
The lack of villains. Homeland has the guts to lead us to Al Qaeda’s number-one most wanted bad guy (Abu Nazir, played by Navid Negahban), and show him not as a ruthless killer, but a smart, soft-spoken family man. Who just happens to have a knack for making other people do his dirty work for him. It’s a terrific, well-shaded — and timely — study in what evil most often looks like.
In the modern Golden Age of television, Homeland is an excellent example of what “the best” looks like. Ours is a time when The Good Wife — the best drama the Big Three networks have to offer, very smart storytelling in its own right — is no competition for cable products like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire. This era’s best shows are so far ahead of where the medium was just a few years ago (Boston Legal, anyone? House?), it’s easy to forget that what we once thought of as “good” was a soap opera set in a law firm. A rising tide lifts all boats.
It would be unimaginable to say, “Leonardo da Vinci was good and all, but Michelangelo kicked his ass.” If this really is a Renaissance in scripted television — and I believe it is — it’s the number and variety of works and artists we enjoy that define it. I feel lucky to be able to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland. And others; I’m really hoping there will be others.
If you watch Homeland, or are interested, join us for the Open Thread on Sunday night. I think you’ll be glad you did.