The height of first-season hype virtually assured the show would ultimately be maligned
A cursory review of social media and critics’ post-mortems tilted toward negative assessments, which should come as no surprise. Hating a series that was once the cat’s meow has become so gradually ingrained in the groupthink about this show over the past few years that Showtime could have staged a nuclear war in the season finale and the blognoscenti would have still been dissatisfied. (Buzzfeed even went so far as to post a particularly scientific listicle, “35 People Who Gave Up On ‘Homeland Tonight.“)
And yet I felt that the last three episodes of the series were the best “Homeland” delivered since the annus mirabilis of its first season, niftily course-correcting a season that began so badly that, like many, I considered just giving up on the show. But I seem to be in the minority regarding perceiving any sense of the show returning to form.
My theory as to why that is has less to do with the actual intrinsic creative value of the series and more with the fickle dynamics of a phenomenon known as “hype.”
The moment the series’ second season started to look a bit wobblier than its first, “Homeland” began committing a cardinal sin. Once it became clear that the incredible hype that enveloped the series in its first year was going to be unsustainable, “Homeland” put its ardent fans in an uncompromising position: they had to back down from fervently championing a show received so overzealously that the series swept all the key Emmy Awards drama categories in its rookie season.
This is why the slow build of a “Breaking Bad” is an infinitely better hype arc to maintain than the supernova-like rise of “Homeland.” Burning that bright can only be followed by burnout.
That said, let’s not understate just how low “Homeland” sunk creatively. The beginning of the third season in particular was punishing. There was too much crying and too little spying, as best exemplified by the bizarre focus on the teenage character Dana. The shame was that actress Morgan Saylor was really wonderful in that thankless role. But her storyline belonged on the CW, not Showtime.
So the decline of “Homeland” wasn’t as simple as the series inevitably broke stride from its first-season miracle run. It’s not as if there was some minor dip in quality that was magnified because it had fallen from such a great height.
No, “Homeland” dropped a whole lot, and it wasn’t the height from which it fell that was the primary problem, but the depth to which it had sunk that was the real culprit.
Debate the distance of the decline if you will. But that’s besides the point, which is that “Homeland” critics were inevitably going to make the decline out to be more than it really was. Because by declining whatsoever, Showtime essentially violated an implicit compact with the influencers who fell under the show’s spell.
Call it the Pedestal Plummet Effect: A show will be praised to the heavens for only as long as the quality is maintained at a certain level. But fail to stay above the threshold, and the axes will never stop swinging at the pedestal the critics themselves erected.
It’s as if the influencers who lauded “Homeland” feel they have to atone for the sin of their misplaced faith. They’re made to feel foolish for gushing in the first place, so that false idol they prayed to can’t just be toppled to the ground; overcompensation necessitates it be smashed to bits.
So even if “Homeland’s” writers managed to execute the minor miracle of devising a trio of episodes that seemingly returned the series to its previous exalted level, there was never going to be any recognition of that. Bad buzz rolls like a snowball that will not be slowed. Mean memes like ‘Homeland sucks’ take on a life of its own. Once it becomes fashionable to bash the show, not even a creative recovery can remedy the situation.
It’s a bleak picture being painted here, as if “Homeland” will wander the rest of its time on earth in search of a redemption that will never come, like Brody himself. But fear not, Showtime programming chief David Nevins.
Because just as the series essentially pressed the reset button on itself with the death of one of its lead characters, it set itself up for the next stage of the hype cycle. Once something like “Homeland” has been pushed from its pedestal to the ground, the dust settles and another meta-narrative takes root: the comeback story. There’s no better time to get behind a series all over again than once it’s been counted out.
Just you wait. Months from now, “Homeland” will make some doozy of a casting announcement before the fourth season and the buzz will be back again. If Showtime’s got the goods, the fans will be good to “Homeland” again.