With one foot rooted in reality and another in the nail-biting trappings of a geopolitical thriller, “Homeland” returns with the assured sense of a series that captivated viewers in numbers few Showtime programs have. Anchored by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, the show resorts to plot threads that strain credibility to get season two rolling, but once the narrative begins hitting its stride in the second episode, it’s clear the program remains on a rarefied creative tier, tantalizingly mixing terrific performances with anything-can-happen edge.
Developed for the U.S. by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, whose resumes include “24” and “The X-Files,” “Homeland” cleverly borrows from both — indulging in conspiracy theories and paranoia, while capitalizing on deep-seated fears of terrorism and sleeper agents within our midst.
Without giving too much away, season two sets up its own psychological war — this one within Lewis’ Nick Brody, the former POW who was broken in captivity, embracing Islam and his terrorist captors. Now firmly ensconced back home as a recently elected congressmen, Brody can’t escape his past — and must wrestle with the extent to which he’s willing to continue serving those who would do America harm. Moreover, there’s the little matter of concealing this internal struggle from his family, particularly his wife (Morena Baccarin) and teenage daughter (Morgan Saylor).
As for Danes’ emotionally scarred CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, her arc last season left the character in such an unexpected place that there’s nowhere for her to go but up, and the producers do a credible job of bringing her back into the story, if not fully making her whole again, after she was essentially drummed out of the agency.
“Homeland” takes some creative license in braiding these threads — one element in particular arises faster than seems plausible — but its backdrop of world events, with Israel and Iran on the brink, couldn’t feel timelier. There are also promising cast additions, including Zuleikha Robinson (“Rome”) as a journalist.
Mostly, “Homeland” plays like “24’s” smarter kid brother — less inclined to provide facile answers or black-and-white heroism. If the Fox show became a form of shorthand for politicians in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, this one reflects a more nuanced approach, without sacrificing tension (as proof, watch the second hour) or excitement.
With Showtime’s signature original “Dexter” winding down, the baton has clearly been passed. For how long remains a legitimate source of skepticism, since like “Breaking Bad,” the serialized narrative that makes “Homeland” so bracing also invites questions regarding how long the producers, like Brody, can maintain their delicate balancing act.
Still, for them, and their network, that’s thus far a nice problem to have.