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Thomson: ‘Homeland,’ a Clever, Confident, and Cruel New Show That Trades in Paranoia

As I write, I have seen only the first three episodes of “Homeland,” and I am mindful that the credit sequence every week contains a couple of shots of Louis Armstrong from around 1930, a detail that has not yet figured in what you’d have to call the narrative. Pops may never pay off; he may be a red herring, a McGuffin or just the inadvertent poster on the wall of a room where a crime occurs. But above all “Homeland” arouses our suspicions—if the show had a sub-title, it would be “Insecurity,” not “Security.” A copy-line in its many self-advertisements warns us to watch closely and listen carefully. There is no more natural paranoia with television than the fear we may be missing something, and this show hardly bothers with old-fashioned identification. It’s more can you find anyone to trust? For me, it’s paranoia enough that the show stems from people who did “24” (Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon)—I’ve always been waiting for its nemesis, Nina, to come back, and the mixture here of sexual surveillance and constant doubt is her territory. I think the show is clever, confident, cruel and—just like “24”—torn between profound insight and ratings.

This is what you need to know; this is what you have to decide whether you can trust. A very jittery CIA operative, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), hears that terrorist pressure has turned an American prisoner-of-war. Then, after eight years of captivity, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued in the Middle East. He comes back a hero, but Carrie thinks he may be a spook and she tries to get her old boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), to support an investigation—what would you call six implanted video cameras in the Brody household? For the sergeant has a wife and two children. The kids barely remember him and the wife, in the dark for eight years, was having an affair with a friend of Brody’s.

Meanwhile, there are signs that a celebrated Arab terrorist is planning an outrage on American soil. Lynne Reed (Brianna Brown), a glamorous hooker who runs his harem for an Arab prince, is helping Carrie, but then she is killed. It is part of the life of compromise that Lynne is murdered after Carrie had lied to her about assigning a support team to guard against just such an attack. But Carrie is a mess and a liability, and she relies on medication provided by her own sister. She may be our heroine, but she is plainly ill. Then there’s the Brody marriage to worry over, and even the thought that Lynne wasn’t killed because she was betraying her playboy prince, but so she could be robbed of a fabulous necklace the prince had given her. Why? Because a terrorist needs cash to run an outrage, and the cash seems to pay for a house under the flight path at Dulles.

What three episodes have taught me is don’t trust a soul, and don’t meekly follow an indicated narrative arc. At first, Brody seems like a hero who has been let down by his wife. But then the wife, Jessica , decides she will make amends, and fall in love with her husband again. There is a lot of sex in "Homeland", and much of it is on the surveillance screens that Carrie is watching (she hasn’t had any sex herself yet). Here’s a scene where she turned the screen aside: Jessica seeks to make love to Brody. He tells her, no he can’t do it in the old way. She must take off her clothes and then he will masturbate watching her.

You may have guessed that the actress playing the wife, Morena Baccarin, is one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen, and in three episodes we have seen a lot of her, including her dismayed witness to her husband jerking off. But we don’t see his act of masturbation, and that’s not just a sign of where television is today, but of the sexist compromise that dogged 24. The psychology of the scene I’ve just described is subtle and plausible, but it is still set up within the conventional framing of voyeurism where the actor is sheltered while the woman’s breasts are there on view like paint drying.

In other words, the melodrama of espionage intrigue is tangled up with the unfairness of the ways we are allowed to see things. I suspect an ultimate purpose of “Homeland” is going to be to reveal that the people in security and insecurity are ruined by it, and that’s a great advance on “24,” where the superlative prowess of Jack Bauer merged with Kiefer Sutherland’s position as an executive producer and profit participant. There is always the danger that these magnificent set-pieces of disorder and narrative surprise will turn crazy before their finale, or stay so obscure that there is no prospect of a second series (remember “Rubicon”). If the world is really on the brink of survival, then thought of sequels and syndication should be set aside. Authentic drama depends on something that can happen just once.

I give no guarantee of where “Homeland” is going, or of how reliable it will be. I think it’s fair to say that it is obsessed with sexual revelation and the display of female nudity. Writers and directors can lose sight of dramatic needs in pursuing such scenes. But Carrie’s disordered mind, and her reckless abuse of others working for her, is a promising start to an examination of the burn-out factor. The Brodys are a touching portrait of a family trying to put their life back together again. And there are several other characters I’ve not mentioned yet who are being given real experience. Plus it’s compulsive, scary, and very good-looking, and even if it relies on kinds of voyeurism don’t kid yourself that you weren’t infected by that virus a long time ago.

So until the show tumbles over into dementia or hideous violence, or until its world ends, I’ll be watching.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.