How’s this for Washington verité? In next Sunday’s episode of “Homeland” — Showtime’s new spies-in-the-D.C.-suburbs drama — a scandal envelops a congressman accused of texting nude pictures of himself to young women. The shamed pol utters familiar platitudes (“my wife and I are going to get through this”), as those following the story titter over his name — no, not Anthony Weiner , but “Dick Johnson.” Heh-heh.
It’s the most luridly ripped-from-the-headlines moment yet in a show that attempts a more nuanced look at the Beltway intelligence community. Midway through the first season, with a second already planned, it’s time to ask: Does “Homeland” get it right?
We’ll forgive some of the geographics. (“Bryden University”? And who name-drops “Truxton Circle” so casually? Where’s that airport tower?) As with so many other D.C.-set productions, “Homeland” spent only a couple of days filming in D.C.
“It’s hard to get permits to film” in Washington, said co-creator Alex Gansa, “and once you do, you can get dislocated so quickly by a motorcade.” So they filmed in Charlotte, which offered soundstages, tax breaks and suburbs that look enough like ours.
But what about the spycraft? The show tells the super-twisty tale of a CIA agent (Claire Danes) obsessed with a returning POW (Damian Lewis), whom she believes was flipped by his al-Qaeda captors to wreak terror in the U.S.
Jeff Stein, author of the SpyTalk blog, doesn’t know many people in the intelligence community following the show: “That's like watching work” for them. He calls the initial story line about the agent illegally monitoring the Marine, on her own time with money from her own pocket, “ridiculous.” The CIA “is so lawyered up, so cautious,” Stein said. They’d never do something like that “because it would get out.” He also scoffed at the division chief (Mandy Patinkin) using a cross-country road trip to interrogate a suspect. “A forehead slapper!” But Stein said the empathetic, good-cop tactics portrayed were credible — and way more true-to-life than the torture-happy means we saw on “24.”
What about the terror suspect airlifted from Afghanistan to an interrogation in Northern Virginia? C’mon, that doesn’t happen! . . . Er, does it?
Hey, in this day and age, who knows? Said Stein: “It’s possible!”
David Nevins, president of Showtime and a Bethesda native, argues that it’s okay to take a few procedural liberties “if you get the feel of the culture right and you get human behavior correct.” Gansa said the actors and writers spent time in D.C. meeting with intelligence officers. And a tight schedule helped them keep up with the news: The story references the death of Osama bin Laden, which happened just as they were writing Episode 2.
“One story I wish had happened earlier was the plot against the Saudi ambassador,” he said. “That would have been an incredible story to tell this year.” Likewise the death of Anwar al-Awlaki , which raised juicy questions about drone warfare and the killing of U.S. citizens. But the Weiner story broke just in time for script purposes.
“We were looking for a way that our lead character [spoiler alert!] could become a congressman in a very quick period of time,” Gansa said. “This presented itself on a platter.”
Read earlier: Hank Stuever reviews “Homeland,” 9/30/11
‘Veep’ films in Washington, 10/25/11