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Homeland First Impressions

Though the official premiere of Homeland is still weeks away, this latest dramatic offering from Showtime is already garnering some attention.  The pilot episode has found its way around after originally being put up on the show's website, watchcareful.ly, and is now available on YouTube, albeit with some slight censoring(DirecTV subscribers will also be able to see it, unedited, this Sunday on the Audience network).  Whether you want to take a peek early or would rather wait until October before jumping into the series, here is what you can expect from Showtime's psychological thriller.

Homeland is certainly a “sign of the times” piece, tapping into the fears of national security that hardly existed just ten years ago.  Which is not to say it's exploitative, or solely reliant on the audience's paranoia to hook them in.  There is dramatic weight behind the plot at the forefront, and a cast with enough talent to keep viewers in their seats even when the characters aren't spying on each other.  Not without its flaws, the pilot still did an excellent job of drawing me into the story, and if the episodes that follow can overcome what issues the show does have, Showtime could have a real winner on it's hands.

Based on the Israeli series known as Prisoners of War, the story of Homeland centers on a Marine Sergeant returning home after spending eight years as a Al-Qaeda PoW.  After he was presumed dead, most are eager to turn him into a national hero, but one lone CIA analyst has reason to suspect they may be inviting the enemy into their midst.  As Sergeant Nicholas Brody tries to readjust to life at home, Carrie Mathison spends every waking moment -and probably a few while she's asleep- obsessing over what Brody and his terrorist handlers are planning.  Written by 24 alums, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, along with the creator of the original series, Gideon Raff, and directed by Dexter's Michael Cuesta, the pilot has much more going on than a simple game of cat and mouse – especially since this cat is crazier than an outhouse rat.

From the first chaotic moments of her unauthorized mission in Baghdad, it was clear Carrie Mathison is a little unhinged.  And it isn't long before we learn she actually suffers from medically treated psychosis(I guess those CIA psyche screenings just aren't what they used to be).  Playing the disturbed and at least semi-deranged character is Claire Danes, who is giving an even better than expected performance.  Coming off an Emmy win for HBO's Temple Grandin, it was nice to see the actress make a return to television in an ongoing series; her first since My So Called Life.  Her physical acting alone has brought a tumultuous energy to the character that keeps your eyes locked to the screen whenever she is on it.  But what makes the character -and the show itself- so engaging is the fact that Mathison isn't just clutching at crazy straws, she actually has good reason for suspecting Brody. 

Recalling the last words of a man about to face the gallows, Mathison sees in Brody the PoW that she was warned had been recruited by Al-Qaeda.  As the episode unfolds more potential clues come to light and Mathison is forced to challenge her boss(David Harewood), who is looking to rise a few rungs on his career ladder with Brody's safe return.  Though he almost turns her in himself -which resulted in one of Danes' most powerful scenes- by the end of the episode it's clear Mathison's CIA mentor, Saul Berenson(Mandy Patinkin), is going to be the only one standing in her corner.  But challenging our trust in Mathison's convictions, or at least our desire to believe them, is Brody himself; who isn't so easy to accept as a bad guy.

The character is being played by an actor who is always welcome on my TV screen after winning me over with his roles in Band of Brothers and Life.  Though it is awhile before we hear more than single sentences out of his character, Damian Lewis does an incredible job portraying a man who after eight years in captivity, can barely recognize himself in the mirror.  The reunion with his wife and two children was probably the highlight of his performance in the pilot, if only for the silent moment he takes to steel himself before he is able to make eye contact with his long-unseen loved ones.  It is actually with Brody's family where most of the pilot's problems came up though.  Our first introduction to these characters has his wife, Jessica, in bed with another man, who of course turns out to be one of Brody's best friends and a fellow Marine, while their teen daughter is at home getting stoned.  These scenes brought an artificial sense to the “home life” subplot and one would hope that it will just be in the pilot that things feel so contrived in the Brody household. 

It is in moments like a daughter trying to ease the tension with a joke about her dad's trip or a son feeling he has to introduce himself in which the real drama lie, and where the writing should be focusing.  I would also rather see Jessica racked with guilt for not being able to love her husband the way she once did, rather than for succumbing to the completely understandable need for affection she would have felt after years without a husband.  Morena Baccarin(Firefly) did find a few moments to shine however, especially in the first night back together with Brody, and if her character has more emotionally driven scenes like that in the future, than she will likely find her best role in Homeland.  It's inevitable that the high-strung tension of a possible sleeper agent is going to take precedence over a returning soldier’s life at home, but Gansa and Gordon need to make sure it doesn't get to the point where it feels like we are sitting through those scenes just to get to the good stuff.

It's impossible to judge if a series will be a success from it's pilot alone, but Homeland is showing enormous potential. Is Brody a man desperately trying to hide something?  Or is he just desperate to forget what he went through?  And how much faith can we have in Mathison's accusations when she may be seeing things that aren't there?  These questions have me dying for answers, and almost regretting starting the series before I'd only have to wait a week for the next episode.  So if the premise has your curiosity piqued, I highly recommend adding Homeland to your fall schedule.

Showtime begins airing Homeland on October 2 at 10pm EST, following the sixth season premier of Dexter.


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