Thirty seconds into the Season 2 opener of Showtime’s “Homeland,” viewers see the first image of an American embassy under attack in the Middle East. At just over two minutes into the episode, American and Israeli flags are burned as U.S. officials are threatened by an angry mob surrounding the embassy compound.
But what happens on Showtime at 10 Sunday night isn’t just a case of art imitating life or scenes ripped from headlines. This is the return of a series that surgically drills deep into the same current of national anxiety as that generated by such real-life events as the Sept. 11 attack this year in Libya.
And as a result of tapping into our shared 9/11 angst as no prime-time show has ever done, “Homeland” crackles with a psychic energy rarely found in prime time. Think “24,” but with two great actors instead of one very limited one at the center of nonstop action.
Last weekend, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decreed “Homeland” the best drama on TV with Emmys for the show, for its writers and for stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.
The win was landmark and not just in the way it shut out AMC’s “Mad Men,” which has owned the category for four years. The sweep also brought Showtime parity with long-dominant HBO, which it had been chasing for more than two decades in the battle to be known as the home of quality drama.
In the world of premium cable TV, where success is determined by the number of high-priced subscriptions sold, such branding is everything. And now thanks to “Homeland,” Showtime has the Emmys to stake its claim alongside HBO.
But while the series deserves the best-drama award for its resonance alone, that is only one of several levels on which it excels. The characters are groundbreaking, and the acting performances are superior to anything else you will find on television.
Lewis plays Nicholas “Nick” Brody, a Marine sergeant who was held prisoner in Afghanistan by al-Qaida for eight years. The first season opens with CIA operatives in Afghanistan rescuing him, and Brody returning to the U.S. as a hero to be united with his unfaithful wife and their two children.
Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a bipolar CIA officer who is virtually alone in believing that Brody was “turned” by al-Qaida and is now secretly working for the terrorists under the direction of a leader named Abu Nazir. The dance these two did during Season 1 was sublime.
When they came together in key scenes last season — such as one in a parking lot outside a group therapy session — the web of mind games, energy and physical attraction pinballing between them was its own kind of a manic high in viewing pleasure.
“There are a number of things that make ‘Homeland’ the best drama on television, but let’s start with those two main characters — they both break a lot of ground,” says Bob Thompson, Syracuse University pop culture professor and author of “The Second Golden Age of Television.”
“Take just the metaphor of bipolar-ness with the Claire Danes character,” he says. “Isn’t it in many ways what the CIA does? And we all depend upon them. We live in a country where we’d like to keep our car and our air conditioning and go to work every day and be safe. And isn’t the whole concept of the CIA within that setup bipolar? You’ve got an organization that has to deprive people of civil rights to keep a nation safe that values civil rights.”
At some level, watching Carrie Mathison leads viewers to confront those kinds of contradictions in American life. And that’s the kind of intellectual response we usually associate with a work of art.
“All those things that we say art is supposed to do, ‘Homeland’ does them,” Thompson says. “If you were to ask me right this second to name a couple of films that have come out in the last couple of years that are better than ‘Homeland,’ I’d have to think long and hard about that.”
But the kind of meditation on American life that Carrie Mathison might trigger in some viewers could not happen if not for the skilled performance of Danes.
Here’s a way to get inside her remarkable work: Focus on her eyes. Watch how she widens her eyes to capture a feeling of panic or fear — the sense that a blast of adrenaline is exploding against the back of her eyeballs.
Danes constantly uses her eyes to give us a window into the uncontrollable highs and lows that threaten to overtake her character. And in that sense, she generates a near-constant sense of dramatic tension every second Mathison is on screen.
And that approach to her performance perfectly serves the larger themes of the series, according to Craig Seymour, associate professor of communications and popular culture at Northern Illinois University.
“This series really put a different twist on the pattern of unconventional protagonists that started with Tony Soprano, because it’s a woman, she’s mentally unstable, and we’re not even sure whether we can believe her on certain things,” Seymour says.
“It’s so engaging to watch, but it’s an uncomfortable feeling at the same time, because you never know what she’s going to do or if she’s going to completely go over the edge,” he adds. “Her mind is working against her because of her mental illness.”
A similar dynamic is in play with Lewis’ Marine, Nick Brody, who experienced psychological manipulation at the hands of terrorists.
“His mind is working against him because of the programming that was done to it. We’re used to being able to predict what TV characters are going to do,” Seymour says. “But in this case, because of what’s happening inside the lead characters’ minds, we really don’t know what they’re going to do. And that makes it a thrilling, new kind of viewing experience.”
As for a quick gauge on the acting skill of Lewis, watch the way he can move from charming to menacing in the bat of an eye. That volatility is at the core of his Nick Brody character, who was imprisoned and tortured for eight years in Afghanistan — and then thrust into the ideological tumult of American political life, where he is now a congressman.
Laurence Olivier and James Gandolfini are the only other actors I can think of who can flip the switch this way and navigate all that emotional territory between friendly and frightening in a heartbeat.
“What an extraordinary honor to be in a category with these golden actors setting a golden standard in acting in a golden age of TV,” Lewis said Sunday night in accepting the Emmy he won over Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Michael C. Hall, Steve Buscemi and Hugh Bonneville.
I’m not so sure about that “golden age of TV” business. But watching these first two hours of the new season is the richest TV experience I’ve had this year.
The second season of “Homeland” debuts at 10 Sunday night on Showtime.