During a tense moment in the season premiere of Homeland, Claire Danes breaks into a brief, unexpected smile, a small gesture that tells you a little about her character, Carrie Mathison.
Enjoying a quiet life post-CIA, Carrie reluctantly agrees to help the very people who fired her, going on a "temporary" assignment that puts her in jeopardy. Carrie is intense and fragile, taking medication to keep her bipolar disorder under control, and her CIA job nearly wrecked her life -- but when she smiles at this moment, you can tell that she enjoys being back in this element, that for all the setbacks she has suffered, she still loves the small victories.
Danes just won an Emmy for best actress in a drama for Homeland, which also won best drama and best actor in a drama for her co-star, Damian Lewis. He plays former al Qaeda prisoner-turned-congressman/vice-presidential candidate Nicholas Brody, whom Carrie suspects of being a sleeper terrorist. The Emmy wins broke victory streaks for Mad Men and Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad -- shows that many critics believe are among The Best Series Ever.
With Homeland's wins coming a week before its second-season premiere, the timing might seem great, and world events are making the second season feel even more contemporary than the first. But the pressure is also on -- to live up to the excellent first season, and to convince new viewers (and some returnees) that it belongs on the level of the shows it beat.
In the two second-season episodes sent for review, it's little moments like Carrie's smile that separate Homeland from the ordinary. Little shifts turn scenes that could be clichéd into something slightly more offbeat. Based on an Israeli drama, the series has echoes of 24 (not surprising, since 24's Howard Gordon is an executive producer) and of the "Bourne" movies, and it owes a big debt to The Manchurian Candidate.
But it stands on its own, thanks to director Michael Cuesta's deft touch with the suspenseful scenes, and to the performances by Danes (jittery, as if Carrie were about to shatter), the always-reliable Lewis (conflicted, enigmatic) and Mandy Patinkin, whose calm, intelligent take on Carrie's mentor, Saul, helps leaven some of the show's excesses.
If you're new to the series, don't worry too much about getting up to speed -- the first episode begins with a lengthy recap of Season 1, and expository dialogue (especially in the first half-hour) helps fill in other holes. The exposition does slow things down a bit, but be patient, because the show does a slow burn till a key moment right at the end of the second episode.
Although newbies might have some questions, they won't be lost, and if you find that some elements strain credibility, well, that happened in the first season, too. But the show's drama is good enough to earn your suspension of disbelief, and Danes and Lewis are good enough as damaged people -- who are getting pulled back in when they thought they were out -- to roll over the other flaws.
Is it a candidate for Best Series Ever? Not yet. But it has the potential to become one. Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872