For those of you who want really smart TV: watch Showtime's Homeland tonight. You'll thank me later.
Homeland features the underrated Damian Lewis - proving his stellar work in NBC's Life was the rule and not the exception - as Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, rescued from Iraq after eight years missing. I always felt like I couldn't say enough about Lewis when Life was on, and I feel that way about his performance here. There's something in his eyes that allows you to read remarkable depth of character, yet looking into them you really can't tell if he's good, evil or if he even knows. And for the character of Brody, that's exactly what's needed.
Brody returns home to his conflicted wife Jessica (V and Firefly star Morena Baccarin) -- who's been carrying on an affair with one of Brody's fellow Marines long enough to have talked about moving in with the guy -- and their two kids, one of whom barely remembers Dad. Baccarin takes a bit of getting used to in the role of Jessica (probably because of all those memories of V and Firefly), but does an able job of conveying her character's emotional strain. I can only imagine we'll see more of her and her problems in upcoming episodes, and then Baccarin will have room to grow.
While Brody is trying to adjust to life back in the States, CIA analyst Carrie Mathieson (Claire Danes) believes, based on a sentence she heard from a source ten months earlier - "an American prisoner of war has been turned" - that he may have switched sides while in captivity. Much to the annoyance of Saul (a bearded Mandy Patinkin), the veteran agent that recruited her, she obsessively tries to prove the Marine is a double agent, going so far as to have an old friend bug his entire house so she can see and hear everything. The pilot's most awkward scene comes when Carrie refuses to turn away from her monitors even as Brody and Jessica are having sex.
A little bit manic, a little bit edgy, Danes has a nervous energy about her. Depending on the moment it's either admirable or irritating, but she's one hundred percent believable as that person who latches onto something and won't let go.
If there's a caution I have about Homeland, it's that none of the characters are particularly likeable just yet - but don't let that let you tune out. While that's normally a big, fat red flag in my book, in this case it's the thrust of the show. We're not supposed to like anyone, because we're not supposed to pick a side, or make up our minds. Every character could be a good guy or a bad guy, or furthermore, a good kind of person or a bad kind of person. We have to tear into the show and figure them all out for ourselves. This is the kind of show that encourages active, independent thought.
And the show gives us no easy answers - in fact, it seems to delight in raising questions. We find out that Carrie's on an anti-psychotic for a mood disorder she claims to have had since she was 22, putting her judgment in question. At the same time, Brody's memories of his time in Iraq blur and differ. Did he watch his partner get beaten to death in front of him - or was he made to deliver the fatal blows? He's not sure, and neither are we.
My concern with this show is if it will be able to answer all its questions as impressively as it asks them, but I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. Homeland is a project from Howard Gordon, the executive producer of 24 and before that, The X-Files; he's had plenty of experience with complicated narratives and touchy subjects. I just hope that a TV audience is willing to invest the time, and more importantly the brainpower, into unraveling the answers.
This is the kind of show I've always wanted on TV; heck, it's the show I've always dreamed of writing. It's that rare beast - like 24 or The Chicago Code or another Showtime classic, Brotherhood - that takes TV watching from a passive experience to an active one, that forces the audience to participate and not just sit back and watch. It's the kind of show we ought to encourage more of. I walked out of the pilot still thinking about it, already asking questions about not just what would happen in the next episodes, but what I might do in the same situation. This is one of those shows that makes me stand up and say proudly, "See? Television isn't an idiot box. It isn't all reality TV. Scripted television can really be something."
I said it with The Chicago Code last season and I'll say it with Homeland: this is a show you need to watch, not simply because it's fantastic on its own individual merits, but because it is everything that is wonderful about television. If you're a fan of television as an art form, you need to be watching Homeland. This is what we turn on the TV for.
Homeland airs tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime.