‘Homeland’s’ Real Secret: The Show Wasn’t Built to Last

Why 'Homeland' wasn't built to last

Emmy winner's creative rough patch exposes how not all serialized fare is born to run

For fans of quality drama, Sunday at 9 p.m. has become a special kind of logjam. Yet amid an embarrassment of riches consisting of CBS’ “The Good Wife,” AMC’s breakaway hit “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s still-mesmerizing “Boardwalk Empire,” only Showtime’s “Homeland” can boast a best-series Emmy on its resume.

All of which might help explain the hand-wringing over the perceived decline in quality for “Homeland,” which has been intermittent, but steady, since about the midway point of the show’s second season. The drumbeat became particularly loud after last week’s episode (and WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead), when the series revealed the entire year’s plot to this point has been an elaborate red herring, designed to convince Iranian operatives that disgraced CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) could be turned into a counter-spy.

Still, after watching this week’s episode — which saw Carrie plunge further into that scheme, while continuing to follow what might be the worst “B” plot in the history of quality drama involving pouting teenager Dana (Morgan Saylor) — it seems unlikely “Homeland” can fully snap out of its doldrums. In other words, those complaining that the show isn’t approaching the operatic heights of its first season had better get over it, because at this point, it looks like it is what it is.

That’s not to say Sunday’s episode was without its pleasures, from the aforementioned Iranian enjoying a hamburger to the pointed speech delivered by Saul (Mandy Patinkin) after a Dick Cheney-like hunting excursion. Patinkin’s role has been wisely beefed up to compensate for the character of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the U.S. soldier-turned-terrorist-turned-Congressman-turned-fugitive, left missing in action for the fourth time in five episodes.

Yet “Homeland,” ultimately, has demonstrated itself to be a show without much of a second act. The game of cat and mouse between Carrie and Brody was fascinating. The moment where she broke him down under interrogation was as good as anything on TV last year.

After that, strictly in creative terms, the series had clearly peaked. Because now it’s pretty familiar spy-versus-spy stuff, featuring a stellar cast and taut situations, yes, but seemingly unable to re-ascend to anywhere near to the lofty creative perch it occupied.

As compare-and-contrast exercises go, the premise of “Homeland” simply isn’t as resilient as something like “Walking Dead” — which has chewed through major characters and kept reloading with new ones — or “Boardwalk,” which slowly, inexorably builds season-long arcs around new heavies, allowing some of its major players (such as Kelly Macdonald) to recede into the periphery without viewers feeling the loss as acutely as Brody’s absence.

Sunday’s slow-going “Walking Dead,” in fact, offered a solid demonstration of how effectively the show has replaced its casualties, featuring the characters of Daryl (Norman Reedus) and relative newcomers Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman). Moreover, after the macro threat posed last season by the Governor, the plot has self-consciously turned to a micro one — literally, inasmuch as the major villain has been a virus, wreaking havoc on the prison where survivors of the zombie apocalypse have taken refuge.

To be fair, the year is still young for both “Homeland” and “Walking Dead.” Still, if there’s been a real standout among these cable heavyweights thus far give the nod to “Boardwalk,” which has expanded the role of the fabulous Michael Kenneth Williams and introduced Jeffrey Wright as the mysterious Valentin Narcisse, setting up a power struggle that paid off in an extraordinarily tense and visceral sequence (my face still hurts just thinking about it) in the episode that premiered Oct. 27.

On the eve of “Homeland’s” second-season finale, I suggested those responsible should recognize the corner into which they boxed themselves by making the third season its last: “It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the program could run much longer and remain plausible without completely hitting the ‘reset’ button,” I said, adding, “Not every series is built to sustain itself for five years (once the ‘We’ve made it!’ benchmark for syndication), much less seven or eight — especially today’s wildly intricate serialized dramas.”

Of course, that won’t happen. “Homeland” remains a success, and in TV that’s never something to be tossed away cavalierly, which explains why it’s already been renewed. Similarly, with the astonishing numbers “Walking Dead” has been posting this month, don’t be surprised if Robert Kirkman’s creation is still knocking ’em dead when Rick’s baby is all grown up and every bit as much of a zombie-killing badass as big brother Carl.

So those grousing about “Homeland” would appear to have one of two options: Accept the show on its current terms, or move along. Because while there’s still a potentially enjoyable franchise here in the mode of “24,” there’s seemingly no way to reconstruct the magic the series initially conjured with a premise that was too intricately woven to hold together indefinitely.

Put another way, as a native of Nucky Thompson’s home state of New Jersey might say, in today’s TV landscape of serialized, novelistic drama, not everything was born to run.

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  1. Madaja says:

    I truly enjoyed the walking dead until this season started, despite the sub par acting. Glen, Maggy, Hershall, Michone, and the Governor are good, other than that not so much. I can’t believe how bad this season has been.
    As for Homeland, the first two from this season were bad, after that I believe it has been outstanding. Glad they brought it back from teenage romance drama made for mtv.

  2. K.N. says:

    Each week Showtime keeps bragging about how great the ratings are for Homeland to the point that I wish I could hit their spokesman in the mouth. But yeah, it is a curious thing, how viewers will keep right on watching hoping things will get back to HOW THINGS WERE. It’s like a bad relationship in that way.

  3. Cathy says:

    I wished this show was on a cable station,I would like to see it without paying for showtime.Thank,Cathy

  4. Dont forget that Brody is on the run and could conceivably clear his name for the Langley bombing and could also turn double agent. That turn could take the show deep into terrorist cells and provide some great drama.

    Boardwalk Empire lost some steam after killing off Michael Pitt’s character. Nucky hasn’t been in true danger since then. The Capone story line and Michael Kenneth Williams and Jeffrey Wright going toe to toe is keeping the show alive. Admittedly more alive than Homeland.

  5. lotrfan says:

    The dana storyline is killing the show!

  6. jenna1087 says:

    Boardwalk – bring back Margaret.

  7. Alan Ormsby says:

    The best thing about the otherwise dramatically flaccid BOARDWALK EMPIRE has been the introduction of Margot Bingham. I watch the show, yes, mainly because of the great production design and the first-rate cast, but Steve Buscemi (great actor that he is) gives the same line reading in scene after scene mainly I think because the writers give him nothing much to do except light a cigarette and look droll; this show has never really been going anywhere (especially since they offed Michael Pitt) but I keep hoping. Re: HOMELAND, similar problem: great cast, terrific build-up, then – splat! – letdown. I agree with the other commenters who lapse into a coma every time Dana’s story takes center stage.

  8. jason says:

    So you basically have written two of the same articles in less than a year telling a show to cancel itself even though it’s a hit? Yeah that’s gonna work. Keep at it.

  9. Honestly I think this season is the best. It feels free.

  10. Wait, a second… Pretty sure, Brian you got something wrong –. Last year’s Carrie’s storyline wasn’t part of the “sting” (this year’s episodes)…

    After what went down (in last year’s shows), that’s when Saul and Carrie decided to set up the sting… in other words… after she did what she did with Brody, etc. After Saul became temporary acting chief of the CIA. That’s when the sting went into play.

    For the record, I was getting tired of the beginning of this season, but the revelation of the sting did help me appreciate what the writers had accomplished… and I’m excited about where the show is going from here…

  11. Steve says:

    I like all of HOMELAND so far. All three seasons… it’s just a different story this year. Season 2 was just as good as Season 1… The complaints about S2 and S3 are the same “rap” everyone gave LOST after it won the Emmy in the 1st season, then had growing pains in S2 and S3. It was still was a great show overall. HOMELAND is, too.

    I don’t think this Dana stuff is as powerful, yet I think it could be setting us up for something… As long as the show is about Carrie, it’s an engrossing thriller.

    Shows learn to evolve as they make them sometimes. Not everything is as finite as BREAKING BAD. HOMELAND’s no different.

  12. Enough with whiny depressing teenage Dana. This show just sucks every time we are dragged into Brodie’s family over wrought melodrama.

  13. Really??? says:

    I’m tired of not seeing Brody. Why give so much screen time to his annoying family? I mean, Dana is really the new Kim!!! Useless and annoying. Brody is by far the best character of this show, we need to c more of him so they should just find a way to connect him to the main storyline (which is hardly believable by the way)! More Brody, less uninteresting stuff!!!

  14. Andrea says:

    I have watched and loved so many cable dramas. I gave Homeland a chance the first season and later accumulated all of season 2 on my DVR and eventually deleted all without watching. I didn’t even have the urge to. Nothing left me wanting more like Breaking bad or Boardwalk empire or even Dexter. In my opinion there are better ways to waste my time!

    • JB says:

      Agree 100%. This show, unlike what the creators might have envisioned, is not about a mentally-troubled CIA operative and her mentor, it is about the Marine she found and suspected had been turned – and all that has ensued since then is about HIM. Not Carrie. And not Saul. In the words of Reggie Jackson, he is “the straw that stirs the drink.”

  15. johnhelvete says:

    The real problem this season is the show has not moved on from the Brody character. The “worst “B” plot in the history of quality drama” is part of continuing to tell Brody’s story.

  16. Jay says:

    Homeland is has lost a lot in the third season. Danes and Patinkin are so spell binding they are carrying the show. Saylor’s adolescent and shallow presence is an absolute distraction and is dragging Homeland down. I hope it will survive the nose dive.

  17. Matrices says:

    Boardwalk Empire.. seriously? It’s easy for it to ‘sustain’ itself when so little happens.

  18. Stella says:

    I missed Brody, he’s only been in one episode so far. The show is exciting when he is on the screen and him and Carrie had great chemistry. I want him to run away with the daughter from the 3rd episode, that would be something to watch.

  19. Gin says:

    Brian Lowry, I kind of hate you, but you speak true here. I have chosen to move on.

  20. Ryan says:

    Didn’t Boardwalk Empire win an Emmy in its first season?

  21. Goodbyenoway says:

    You lose all credibility by praising the mediocre Boardwalk Empire which hasn’t been worth watching for more than 18 months.

    • Jonathan says:

      And you lose all credibility by calling Boardwalk Empire mediocre. It’s easily one of the top 3 dramas on TV.

      • doubledown44 says:

        Boardwalk Empire has been extremely boring this season. Every Saturday, when we finally get around to watching it, we talk about not watching it any more. It’s sad to remember how great it used to be — when it actually was one of the three best dramas on TV.

      • I’m so sorry – that’s your opinion. Many of us have left ‘the Boardwalk” and moved on to shows a little more thoughtful and ‘animated’.

  22. After you Brody comeback in 308, you’ll see, it’s always too soon to condemn Homeland.

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