Ten Years Ago, when Osama bin Laden seemed like he had a bloody sequel right around the corner, there was a TV show called 24. It tapped into the American id by deputizing its hero, Jack Bauer, as the nation’s antiterrorist: in defense of us, our freedoms, and Elisha Cuthbert. This fall, one of 24’s executive producers is bringing forth a new Showtime series called Homeland. It dispatches a hero to battle against Al Qaeda and the annihilation of America, too. The new show is as snug in its cultural moment as 24 was.
In Homeland, our hero is Claire Danes. She plays Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent haunted by clues she missed before 9/11. “Let’s just say that she’s a little...intense,” the character’s friend says. By day, Mathison snoops in ways even the Patriot Act doesn’t allow. By night, she slips on high heels to meet guys. She also adds a phony wedding ring so men won’t attach themselves and get in the way of her gumshoeing.
Mathison’s spidey-sense tingles when Marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), classified MIA, is discovered in Afghanistan eight years after he vanished. She gets a tip that Brody has been “turned” by an Al Qaeda leader. (The fiend is called Abu Nazir, whose name sounds vaguely like a dozen real terrorists.) From the moment Brody returns to American soil, Mathison tries to expose the war hero.
If this sounds like The Manchurian Candidate: Enduring Freedom Edition, well, it is. But Homeland has enough good stuff to feel fresh, including freakish timing. Executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had already shot the pilot when bin Laden was geronimo’d. Gansa thought the show was doomed; Gordon, the 24 vet, knew they had it made. The antiterror roundup so easily (and willfully) forgotten by Americans was page one again.
“24 was born in the ashes of 9/11,” Gordon says. “This is a show that could only have taken place 10 years after.” Or as Gansa puts it, “24 was an action thriller about America’s mus-cular response to the towers coming down. This is a psychological response to where the country is post–Osama bin Laden’s death.”
Claire Danes is all psychological response. She has bleached blonde hair and a face that holds back a torrent of angst. Going back to My So-Called Life, Danes has always been a good worrier. Homeland ups the ante: Mathison has bipolar disorder and pops clozapine. For her character, Danes tells me, the threat of destruction “exists on both the micro and macro level.” Brody may blow up the U.S. Capitol—and her psyche may go to pieces. “She can’t ever take her own safety for granted,” Danes says.
But Damian Lewis is Homeland’s standout. A British redhead that got a run here in The Forsyte Saga and the short-lived Life, he looks like an all-American boy put through the ringer—a Norman Rockwell teen with too many miles on the tires. When he reunites with his wife (Morena Baccarin) and kids, the scene is near perfect. A smile spreads across Lewis’s face gradually, and then it grows as big as a clown’s—we see his brain reactivating in fits and starts. (His jitters could also indicate someone back in Afghanistan is pulling the strings.)
After eight years in captivity, Brody must relearn his life. How to pose in a family photo. How to chug beer with his Marine buddies. How to...have sex with his wife. During their first time, he’s like a dog just let out of the kennel—it’s a hammering, revolting performance. Brody’s face is aghast. That wasn’t what it was supposed to feel like...
What separates Homeland’s moment from 24’s? First, the era of Jack Bauer’s torturing, muscle-flexing Americanism is over. “We don’t dictate law to the Iraqis anymore,” Mathison is told by a superior. When Mathison illegally bugs Brody’s house, she’s treated like a semi-mad woman, not a do-anything defender of national security.
Second, there’s a different urgency. “Does anyone still remember the war on terror?” Frank Rich once asked in a column about 24. The year was 2005. In 2011, the amnesia is even more widespread. Mathison’s job doesn’t feel like a superhero call. It feels like a lonely mission. You feel for her—and every CIA watchman who’s doing her work. We see the strain on Brody and Mathison’s faces: fear, paranoia, and just plain exhaustion. Homeland is poised to be a riveting study of our long hangover.
The pilot’s cliffhanger has Brody standing in front of the U.S. Capitol, perhaps admiring his target. But the most compelling thing isn’t what’s going on in Brody’s brain. It’s what happened to all our brains during the war on terror. It’s the kind of question Jack Bauer never had a free second to consider.