Gripping and daring, Homeland raised questions British TV
needs to answer
As with Victorian novels, much of its power comes from the space available for
narrative development, writes Mark Lawson.
Damian Lewis in Homeland, ‘notable for an ambiguity of attitude far outside the us-
and-them divisions of most political thrillers’.
The highest levels of televisual tension have generally rested, in recent years, on
which of two aspiring performers would be allowed to record an album for Simon
Cowell. But – for upwards of 2.5 million viewers of Channel 4 on Sunday night –
genuine pulse-thumping, sweaty expectation attended not the result of a public
phone-vote but that oldest of dilemmas: the outcome of a story.
Twelve weeks after he returned to America a hero from eight years as a hostage in
Iraq, would Damian Lewis’s Private Brody finally prove the view of CIA handler
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) that he was an al-Qaida sleeper set on devastating
the American government?
Following three months of unnerving reverses, in this adaptation by the American
cable network Showtime of the Israeli prisoner of war dramaHatufim, the answers
were typically twisted and ambivalent. While intermittently implausible (requiring,
for example, the secret service to be oddly cavalier about sniper lines of sight), the
plot intelligently combined concepts – rendition, redaction – introduced to the
language by recent occupants of the White House. It was also notable for an
ambiguity of attitude far outside the us-and-them divisions of most political thrillers.
The quality of writing and acting made Brody sometimes warm and supportable to
the extent that the viewer is tempted into the mental treachery of wanting his anti-
democratic massacre to succeed.
But the most daring aspect of the drama was to create two central characters who
could never necessarily be trusted in anything they said or did: Brody because he was
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but also a suspected terrorist and
Carrie due to a bipolar condition for which she received electroconvulsive therapy in
Sunday night’s finale, conveniently wiping from her mind some of the details of
And, if Homeland had a serious weakness, it was the nagging need to keep a second
series possible. At times, there was an unwanted additional tension, now common in
TV drama, between the narrative logic whipping the story to its natural conclusion –
would Brody get away with it, whatever “it” is? – and the commercial imperative for a
successful show to continue for as many series as possible.
So, while Brody did seem by 10.45pm to be an American Taliban who flunked his
mission to kill the vice- president, enough doubt has been left about who exactly is
running whom to make viewers eager for the sequel, in which Carrie will again seek
to convince America that it is him rather than her who has the unreliable mind.
For British television, the brief relief at not being found wanting in comparison with
Scandinavian shows (The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge) will be tempered by another
round of cringing contrasts with America. And, while the alleged inferiority of British
TV drama can be exaggerated – shows such as Sherlock, Life on Mars and Downton
Abbey are envied in the US – the viewer and reviewer reception of Homeland here
does raise issues that commissioners in this country need to consider.
David Harewood, who plays double-dealing CIA chief David Estes, has, in a number
of interviews, echoed the complaints of other black British actors that our networks’
preference for period dramas and classic adaptations reduces the availability of
strong non-white roles. Harewood has suggested that he would not be offered in
Britain a role as pivotal and complicated as Estes and that even the acclaim for
Homeland has not yet improved the flow of offers.
Our homeland drama departments should urgently examine such complaints and
perhaps also reflect on the greater risk-taking of overseas fiction. The 12 episodes of
Homeland’s opening season are a standard span in the US, whereas six parts is
exceptional for a UK start-up and two or three more usual.
This caution comes from a tradition of public funding, state regulation and rapid
newspaper fury over “flops”. But, in common with the vast Victorian novels with
which the form of British TV drama shares so much, much of the pulling power of
Homeland comes from the space available for narrative and character development.
Tension now shifts to the arrival of this autumn’s second season. Surely, though, two
runs must be the limit. The experience of series such as Lost makes us fear the
revelation, in the schedules of about 2017, that the previous six seasons were Brody’s
nightmare in his Iraqi rat-hole on the eve of release from imprisonment.
Mark Lawson guardian.co.uk, Sunday 6 May 2012