I thought the season finale of Homeland was very powerful, especially as an acting showcase. (When a TV show has great performances, it’s usually a sign that the writers are doing something right too: on poorly written shows, good actors get no chance to do what they do best.) The plot mechanics could sometimes be a little dodgy, as they usually are in season finales, but the performance opportunities were all there, the central characters remained remarkably interesting, and the ending left me thinking not so much about the plot – who will find out what, who will do what – as about the characters, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what kind of situations we might see them in next year. And it also helped that while there were twists, they were not Shocking Twists, the type of plot devices that writers pull out of their hat to tell us that everything we’ve seen is wrong. Instead it mostly confirmed what we’d seen, or resolved questions in a straightforward manner, so we could concentrate on Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.
Homeland has been called a modern-day Manchurian Candidate, though the two works are apples and oranges in some ways. The Manchurian Candidate is basically a satire of the entire Cold War, a more deadpan comedy than Dr. Strangelove, where the punchline is that the McCarthyite red-baiter was right all along about a Commie plot – and he just didn’t know that he himself was the key to bringing down America. Homeland is built on a somewhat similar idea, but it’s not played for deadpan satire, and it’s not done as a crazy thrill-ride like 24 was; it’s a straightforward (not afraid of blunt exposition if that’s what the scene requires), serious psychological thriller with the emphasis on psychology.
In some ways it’s especially understandable in the context of the fact that many of the most popular shows on TV – NCIS on broadcast, or Covert Affairs on cable – deal frequently with national and homeland security issues. They do it in a superficial way, and sometimes a way contrived to deal with issues without really dealing with them. (NCIS in particular has a crazy scrambled political point of view that could be a gold mine to political commentators: even more than 24, their stories seem to schizophrenically bounce back between left and right, sometimes trying to throw in something for every person with every opinion.) What Homeland does is to take a number of plot points that could turn up on those shows – for one week, maybe two at the most – and build the whole show around them. And the central characters of the show are the people who usually get killed off within one episode on a “regular” show: the mentally disturbed agent who is frighteningly convinced that she’s right, and the equally disturbed Marine who has some kind of twisted view about what it means to serve his country. Making them the stars, and turning what would normally be a single-episode plot into a 12-episode game of cat-and-cat, displays serialized TV storytelling at its best: its ability to unpack and analyze the story ideas that would normally zoom by in a form of TV shorthand.
I wonder what the show’s Emmy chances are like, apart from Danes, who has to be considered the favourite to win. Nominations I’m sure it will get, unless the Emmy voters are so completely used to voting for Dexter that they won’t notice Showtime has a good drama now. Whether it has a chance to win the big prize is less clear. Thrillers are not always the Emmys’ favourite things; 24 won once and Mission: Impossible won twice, but thrillers rarely win otherwise. It’s also been a long time since a drama won with a female lead as the primary focus, though that may have as much to do with the shows being produced (on cable and broadcast) as with the voters’ tastes. Anyway I think it could still win if Showtime chooses to put its substantial promotional might behind it – the network has never won an Emmy for best continuing series, and getting one would be a way of finally proving it belongs in the big time with HBO, a status it has never quite achieved.