Welcome back, Homeland

Today's guest post is written by Sarah Watt, Sunday Star Times film critic, previous OTB contributor and all-round entertainment maven. Sarah did such a good job reviewing forgettable Ashley Judd thriller Missing that I was only too happy to give her the floor on returned post-post-9/11 thriller Homeland. Thanks Sarah! - Chris

First, a massive shout-out to TV3 for making me proud, for once, to be a New Zealand television viewer. They've brought us Season 2 of Homeland, one of the best shows of recent times, within hours of its screening in the US! Even the Poms are a couple of days behind us. I don't know what measures were taken in order to achieve this, but I'm prepared to turn a blind eye to rendition or other illegal tactics. Don't ask, don't tell.

My relief was palpable within the opening moments of episode one, as it became immediately evident the writers of this terrorism versus mental illness, is-he-isn't-he thriller hadn't lost their touch over the summer break. 

Carrie (Emmy winner Claire Danes) is back, living peaceably with her nurturing sister and empathetic bipolar father, and teaching English to a group of - wait for it - Arabs! (Well, we're only shown "Omar's" test paper, but surely there is a point being made here.) It's great to see Carrie looking so well, still with her smarts, but taking care of her emotional self.

Meanwhile, Brody (Emmy winner Damian Lewis) is swiftly ascending the greasy pole of politics and looking thoroughly at home in his wood-panelled office. I almost feel bad for him, seemingly oblivious to the fact he's probably only there thanks to the puppet strings attached to his wrists. It's going to get very lively when both sides make him dance.

Wife Jess (Morena Baccarin, the Teri Hatcher of our decade) is now married to a proper congressman, and embracing all the ladies' good works that such a role entails. Grumpy teen Dana has mellowed out since she caught her father praying in the garage, and now reserves her emo mystique for school-hours.

And wait, wasn't there a son before? Perhaps he's at military boarding school or something - clearly I couldn't hear that bit over all the marital shouting once Jess finds out about the prayer thing, too.

As before, the acting is superlative, with each character's tiny gestures nailing an inner thought or feeling: see the look on Dana's face when she inadvertently outs her Muslim dad! Brody's frown lines deepen when the Beautiful British Baddie coerces him into spying for Abu Nazir (ah, how those Americans love their English-vowelled evil-doers). Most satisfying of all is seeing Carrie's triumphant smile as she escapes her pursuer in the market at the end of episode one: she knows she's still got it, and we feel pleased for her.

If you fancy yourself as an early adopter of decent telly, it's smugly satisfying that this series simply assumes prior viewing and plunges us straight into a whole new web of uncertainty. It sure is wordy at times, particularly when the vice-president is endlessly blowing the gaff on all the homeland security secrets to novice Brody.

Though it's not as flashy as the brilliant dialogue of, say, The West Wing, there's more at stake here and the gravity of every situation makes it as gripping as a well-made Hollywood thriller (Missing, take note).

It wasn't until halfway through episode two that I was reminded that poor old Carrie doesn't know what we know about Brody's assassination attempt last series - and she is still bearing the self-inflicted scars of thinking she was wrong. It's horrifying! To be so brilliant, so instinctual, and yet to feel oneself to be unreliable; surely there can be no greater terrorism of the soul than mental instability and the fear of insanity.

This aspect of our protaganist's character not only gives her a fully fleshed-out personality, neatly serving as her Achilles heel, but draws a fascinating parallel with the show's broader themes of terrorism from external sources.

It's hard to recall Claire Danes as Juliet Capulet, wearing swan wings and mooning after Leo all those years ago. Danes makes a perfect Carrie, and is to be credited with portraying manic depression in an accurate and unhysterical way. It's entirely credible when her eyes light up after she succeeds in a mission having used her wits - you sense the tiniest hint of mania even as Saul is telling her off for going against protocol.

Similarly, Carrie's comedowns, though they will no doubt feel a little tiresome by episode five, are managed realistically. It's not often that a TV show treats a personality disorder with respect (Big Bang Theory, anyone? United States of Tara, you say?) while letting the viewer get so close to empathising with the experience.

Homeland is a serious show, but clearly audiences are ready to embrace being treated as more than the dullard for whom The Ridges, The Block and NZ's Got Talent were created.  Oh wait, it wasn't the Americans who brought us those...

What do you think of Homeland's second season so far?

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