In “Homeland,” Showtime’s astonishingly good and tightly riveted new drama set amid Washington’s classified war on terrorism, Claire Danes stars as Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent racked with guilt over what she considers her personal failings to recognize clues that might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. She’s been trying to make up for it ever since, even though her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), constantly reminds her that the failure was shared across agencies.
That’s a lot of years to carry that kind of burden around. The show, which is set mainly in Northern Virginia, will surely resonate in our particular neck of the woods, where internalizing the duties of national security is necessarily a private anguish. Whenever life leads me to Metro’s Orange Line or onto Chain Bridge Road at rush hour, I wonder how many of my stone-faced fellow commuters are employed as a sort of human shock absorber. My hyperactive imagination sometimes believes everyone works in intelligence. I wonder about the stress.
And, like any Washingtonian (or suburban-Washingtonian) who thinks too much, I wonder which person or camera is watching me on the train and working up a profile. The degree to which we spy on one another supplies “Homeland’s” constant sense of paranoid anxiety.
Carrie deals in secrets and keeps a potentially ruinous one about herself: Once a day she pops an antipsychotic pill to stave off mental illness. If anyone knew, she’d lose her clearance. Her medicated equilibrium nevertheless betrays her when her obsessiveness over her unauthorized spying leads her to make poor professional decisions.
Carrie’s failures are stacking up: When the show opens, she is in Baghdad, rushing to a clandestine meeting with a condemned Iraqi prisoner. Just before Carrie is caught speaking to him, he whispers a dreadful bit of news: A soon-to-be-released American POW has been converted into a terrorist.
With no proof, and with her cover blown, Carrie winds up back at Langley assigned to desk work, under the watchful eye of a deputy director, David Harewood (David Estes), who doesn’t like her.
Then comes the news that a U.S. Marine sergeant captured at the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 has been rescued — bewildered and bedraggled. It’s Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, whom fans of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” may recall), who is brought home to a hero’s yellow-ribbon welcome. Even before his debriefing, Carrie is convinced Brody is the terrorist her source warned her about.
“Homeland” is absorbing and panicky from its start. It is a post-9/11 and post-bin Laden story — the al-Qaeda leader’s death is referenced in the second episode. “Homeland” is attuned to both the lethargy and relentlessness of the present-day war.
Which also makes it a post-Jack Bauer story. Certainly “Homeland” leans heavily on the technology at its characters’ disposal the same way “24” did, but it is not ridiculous about doing so. (Especially not since I watched this week’s “60 Minutes” story about the New York Police Department’s tricked-out, anti-terror surveillance unit. Did you get a look at that place? The future, my friends, is truly upon us.)
Without evidence, Carrie unwisely begins round-the-clock surveillance of Brody — hiring high-tech geeks to help her rush in and install hidden cameras all over his family’s house while Brody’s plane is landing.
Once the Brody family is home, Carrie spends countless hours on her couch watching the video feeds as Brody reacquaints himself with his American existence. Brody’s wife, Jessica, had at last let herself believe he was dead, so she began an affair with his best friend. (Jessica is played sympathetically by Morena Baccarin, who was the alien lizard queen from ABC’s “V”; her new hair extensions fail to distract us from this unfortunate fact.) Brody’s daughter has become a sullen and rebellious teenager; his son doesn’t remember him.
The first night home, Carrie spies on Nicholas and Jessica’s tentative reunion sex, which all but turns into marital rape. Carrie must puzzle over whether Brody’s emotional and psychological damage is real or part of an act, or a little of both. During the days, while a gaggle of reporters wait out front to get a glimpse of the war hero, Brody prefers to cower in a dark corner, a strangely comforting reminder of his prison cell.
With her heart in the right place and her methods so perilously out of whack, Carrie gives the viewer fits of worry: Why is she taking such risks? Danes is at her complicated best here, giving the role the same sad nuance that she first showed as a teenager and in last year’s “Temple Grandin.”
It’s also nice to see Patinkin put to good use as her demanding mentor, who is himself a bit of a brilliant misfit at the CIA. With its cool regard for cryptology and intelligence methods, “Homeland” in some way reminds me of the late, lamented “Rubicon” on AMC, except that it is much more frenetic in pace.
As Brody, Lewis could not be more perfectly mysterious, alternating between scary and scarred. Three episodes in, when it seems Carrie is correct that he’s part of a terrorist plot, a mesmerized viewer will feel certain that there are bigger surprises ahead.
I’ve had to watch so much awful TV lately that even though “Homeland” gives me a serious case of the jitters, each new episode of it has been like a little reward. I expect it not to be the talk of the Orange Line, because nobody talks on the Orange Line. But I’ll bet the show gets inside a lot of heads.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.