Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: 2nd October, 2011-18th December, 2011
Sixteen months after the end of 24, Showtime debuted the latest thriller to come from the pens of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. While the two writers had been writing partners in the early 90s, contributing together on several first season episodes of The X-Files, Gordon went solo from season two onwards, writing some superlative instalments of Chris Carter’s 90s pop culture juggernaut, several episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as co-creating Strange World with Tim Kring, before joining 24 as a co-executive producer, quickly rising to the rank of executive producer and, from season five onwards, showrunner.
It was his stint as writer and executive producer on 24 that Gordon found a voice in contributing to intense politically flavoured thrillers. 24 was a massive commercial success for the Fox Network during the 2000s, becoming a genuine blockbuster television event not only in the US, but around the world, frequently being nominated for awards and achieving high ratings.
The series was not without controversy; initially conceived as a high concept action thriller with one hell of a hook (real time, 24 hours represented in 24 hour-long episodes), the series’ debut not long after 9/11 meant that its Counter Terrorism Unit-setting responded to that event and US foreign policy with frequent amounts of critical acclaim but also controversy, not least because of its depiction of torture and accusations of Islamophobia, and when it came for Gordon to premiere his next production, he wouldn’t shy away from those themes.
Right from the off, Homeland feels very different, even if it shares a lot of creative DNA with the exploits of Jack Bauer. The series has a similar level of intensity, but the pace is slowed down a tad, with less reliance on a ticking clock and a more sedate and controlled style. There is none of the split-screen thrills of 24 here and instead of relying on a fictional agency whose purview appeared to be ‘shoot first, ask questions later’, Homeland wanted to really gets its thematic foot into the muck of what it meant to be involved in the world of espionage in an era driven by the War on Terror.
The majority of 24’s duration coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush and the implementation of policies and phrases such as ‘axis of evil’ and extraordinary rendition, a period where the news cycle was dominated coverage of military incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq and horrifying imagery of soldiers torturing suspects in Guantanamo Bay.
24 was far from being what one would call a dumb show, and as a terrorist action series it had much more to offer than a 1980s Chuck Norris action movie, but it was a still a series that revelled in Jack Bauer running away from explosions, often being a rogue agent and an attitude that maybe the ends justify the means. There was a definite push and pull with the show’s politics given that its writers’ room was represented by both sides of the political aisle, with its co-creator Joel Surnow very vocal about his conservative leanings and the well acknowledged friendships he had with Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh.
Instead of returning to a well of action and increasingly outlandish (albeit entertaining) ticking time bomb scenarios, Homeland arrived in 2011 with a more introspective exploration of where America had come in the ten years since 9/11.
If 24 felt like a reaction to the events of the time, then Homeland was 24’s more restrained and retrospective younger sibling, taking stock of the past to see its effects on the present. That 24 concluded not long after the election of Obama and Homeland premiered fourteen months later says a lot about how things had somewhat changed when it came to how themes like these were open to being explored.
Instead of a fictional agency, Homeland is set squarely within the inner workings of the CIA’s Langley headquarters, and while it has its moments of suspense, it’s filtered more through character and plot as opposed to set pieces and spectacle (at least at this stage).
This might very well be a series set in the post-9/11 era of 2011, but its slower thrust and character driven exploration of themes such as surveillance culture and political intrigue, not to mention a borderline cynical approach to characters within the world of espionage, has its foot in 70s conspiracy cinema. This is not the world of 24 or the pro-CIA world of Tom Clancy and his Jack Ryan character.
Complex, flawed characters are a dime a dozen in the world of peak-TV, but in the confines of espionage fuelled pop culture, Carrie Mathison is a million miles away from the type of characters that populate shows like these in the present day. She’s female for starters. In a genre that is filled to the brim with the likes of Jack Bauer, Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne, there is something refreshing about a CIA-set series dealing not with a character whose most famous promotional poses are with a gun or against a backdrop that makes them look cool and kick-ass but with one having to deal with mental health problems and a fear of overlooking someone or something that might plunge America into the dark again.
For its first season, so much of the series is driven not by having to deal with what’s happened, but more in the possibility of what might be. The world these characters are living in is us one still fuelled by the horrific imagery and loss of life of that day, but it has since ricocheted into even darker fears and uncertainties and it’s into this environment that Nicholas Brody walks into the frame.
The first half of the series is centred around the question of whether the character has been turned by al-Qaeda, and Carrie’s obsession with this possibility sees her breaking all sorts of rules to get to that answer. If the previous generation of thriller was all about characters who shot first before asking questions, Carrie’s mode of breaking the rules involves placing the character under surveillance and breaking a ton of laws in the process.
In a similarity to so many renegade fictional characters working in the government who we know to be right to a certain extent even if their superiors don’t agree, Carrie finds herself being disbelieved by her superior Saul (the always brilliant Mandy Patinkin) and being viewed with a level of disdain by her boss and CIA Director David Estes (David Harewood) and then going against the grain to prove her theories correct by any means necessary.
However, instead of taking up arms and shooting up the place and blowing stuff up, her means of breaking the rules involves illegal surveillance and a more methodical means of breaking protocol.
Homeland debuted just when the smartphone was about to take off and we would inadvertently allow ourselves to be placed under constant surveillance of sorts by our dependence on devices that come with cameras and clicking ‘I agree’ to the cookies request whenever we visit any website. Not only does the series invoke the feeling that technology is everywhere so readily that we can be spied on without even knowing it (scenes depicting Carrie watching the Brody family have a disturbing voyeuristic charge to them that’s deeply unsettling, especially regarding the first episode’s incredibly dark bedroom scene between Nicholas and his wife Jessica), but in another reminder of classic conspiracy cinema, one is put in mind of Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation.
Many of the scenes in Homeland’s first season involving Carrie sitting in her living room watching intensely the familial dynamics of the Brody family recall similar sequences involving Gene Hackman’s character Harry Caul in Coppola’s film. Both that film and Homeland’s first season also involve its lead character suffering emotional break downs come their conclusions, but where in Coppola’s movie the possibilities afforded by its plot’s events might only be in Harry’s mind, Homeland disturbingly has Carrie become a pariah to all those around her who think she’s crazy while we the audience know she is correct. She receives vindication of sorts by the end, but only from the audience, and receives little of it from anyone else within her story.
The season builds and builds expertly and is enhanced increasingly by career best performances from Claire Danes and Damien Lewis. In lesser hands, the development of their relationship throughout the season might have turned into some weird War on Terror-set soap opera, but the writers’ room here and the work of both actors give their characters and their roles in the drama considerable nuance and complexities that cannot help but leave the audience in emotional knots come the final chapter of the season.
After having spent nearly a decade writing for the high octane 24, you can see a dark glee in Gordon’s writing here at concocting a slower paced and psychological thriller of sorts that plays in a political pool that made him one of American television’s most successful writers. Both Gordon and Gansa concoct a pilot and subsequent series that unsurprisingly drew in large ratings for Showtime, copious amounts of critical acclaim and eventually an Emmy for Best Drama and a plethora of acting nominations for its cast.
Behind the scenes, the talent that was put together here is something to behold, a who’s who of writing talent from some of the best genre series around; Cold Case’s Meredith Stiehm, Millennium’s Chip Johannessen, Lie to Me’s Alexander Cary, as well as playwright Henry Bromell.
Although inspired by the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which was created by Gideon Raff and who would go on to co-create FX’s Tyrant with Gordon, the series became its own thing the more it went on and eventually would be more of a CIA franchise series from season four onwards, putting a whole plethora of real-world events into its crosshairs to explore.
You get the impression that for some critics and audience members, Homeland was its own hard act to follow, and this first season is an incredible twelve episodes of television that never for once loses sight of its big picture. Everything happens for a reason within it, and you get the sense that the writers had a clear idea of what they were doing.
I remember groaning a little at the possibility of a Carrie/Brody romance brewing during that ‘accidental’ meeting at the support group meeting, but then it ended up leading the characters and the audience to the masterpiece that was ‘The Weekend’, a superb episode courtesy of Meredith Stiehm that builds itself around not one but two bottle episode scenarios of sorts that eventually leads to an astonishing conclusion of its own and a game changing twist right at the very end that resets the course of the series for its second half.
The thriller quotient is upped even more for the latter stages of the season. That Brody is discounted as the potential traitor and that it is in fact his friend and previously believed-to-be-dead Tom Walker (Chris Chalk) that is the solider in question is a shock, but then the series turns around again and reveals that both Brody and Walker were turned, and the gloves come for an increasingly fraught finale that turns the tension up to the max.
It indicates that Homeland can do stomach churning high level suspenseful set-pieces as the series it shares a lot of DNA with and can do it without losing sight of the bigger picture and the themes and ideas that brought it there. There were complaints that you could see the series working out that it was a potential hit and that it cops out in not having Brody detonate himself and killing the Vice President and everyone in the bunker sequence that is the centrepiece of its finale, but such is the nature of television.
Homeland returning for a second season was perhaps not that big of a surprise, but what would become fascinating viewing was seeing how the writers would grapple with how to turn it into a long running show and, more importantly, what to do with Nicholas Brody.