Another first-rate cable series adapted from an Israeli format (following HBO’s “In Treatment”), “Homeland” rather quickly gets beyond its formulaic set-up and captures the Cold War paranoia of “The Manchurian Candidate,” where even a returned military hero can be suspected of plotting terror. If the first hour struggles a bit with a surfeit of moving parts, by the end, the show has laid the groundwork for a serial leaps and bounds better than Showtime’s last pass at this subject matter, “Sleeper Cell.”
Overseen by “24” alum Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, “Homeland” centers on a U.S. soldier, Nick Brody (Damian Lewis), rescued eight years after his capture by terrorists abroad. Yet despite the delightful optics for TV, his homecoming isn’t all flag pins and celebration.
Most suspicious is Carrie Anderson (Claire Danes), a CIA agent whose foreign adventures and take-no-prisoners style have landed her on thin ice at the agency. Still, she’s convinced the time interval suggests Brody might have been turned into some sort of double agent, conveniently released to orchestrate terrorism on U.S. soil.
In addition to that macro plot, there’s the micro one, as Brody’s wife (“V'” Morena Baccarin) — who hasn’t exactly been tying yellow ribbons all these years — struggles to readjust to a husband she thought she’d never see again, with kids who barely remember him.
Given Israel’s proximity to forces plotting its demise, one can see how the premise — originated there by Gideon Raff, who shares a writing credit with Gordon and Gansa — would have been especially resonant in that small country. Yet the series effectively transfers those issues to the U.S., with Lewis (a Brit who previously wore a U.S. uniform in “Band of Brothers”) especially good at turning his face into an implacable mask.
Danes’ character proves less interesting. Even a bit miscast, the actress is talented enough to marginally pull it off, but given her prodigious talent, casting her in this fairly by-the-number role (three episodes in, anyway) — despite a pill problem and some nice sparring with her mentor (Mandy Patinkin) — feels a bit like buying a high-performance sports car just to drive it slowly around the block.
Like “Manchurian Candidate,” “Homeland” does some of its best work via flashbacks to Brody’s time in captivity, sprinkling additional tidbits with each glimpse into the past. There are also some clever touches, from a subplot involving an “asset” close to a Saudi prince to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell turning up in the third hour as a journalist profiling the newly returned POW.
“Homeland” also feels more inherently commercial than most of Showtime’s recent dramas, and paired with lead-in “Dexter” ought to create a pretty compelling block.
Besides, after the deluge of Sept. 11 remembrances TV trotted out for the 10th anniversary, there’s something refreshing about a program that spins those apprehensions forward, even if the conceptual process required engaging in another activity that’s become increasingly common in the U.S. during the war-on-terror decade: Borrowing.