One of the best new shows has sneaked onto our screens with the stealth of the espionage world it depicts. Homeland is probably the most serious yet entertaining, sly yet not "cool" drama to debut thus far. As a Showtime series, it's not as splattery-splashy as Dexter, but...well, thank goodness.
The show takes seriously the notion that America is still very much a terrorist target, that the killing of Osama bin Laden may have driven our enemies both deeper underground and into a deeper rage. Unlike AMC's admirable but canceled Rubicon, Homeland doesn't lock itself away in musty rooms, shuffling papers looking for anagrams of "al-Qaeda." No, Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison is a CIA agent who hears that a Marine prisoner of war (Life's Damian Lewis), held overseas and tortured for eight years, is being released. She does an end run around her superiors (including an excellent Mandy Patinkin as her mentor) and bugs the guy's house. Stoked by a tip that ''an American prisoner of war has been turned,'' she thinks Lewis' Sgt. Nicholas Brody may now be a traitor in our midst.
We watch (with Carrie) as Brody tries to reinsert himself into the lives of his wife, Jessica (V's Morena Baccarin), and two children (Morgan Saylor and Jackson Pace). We and Carrie know that Jessica has been having an affair with Brody's old service buddy; unlike Carrie, we also know that Brody has a prayer rug and prays to Allah. Does a devotion to Islam constitute suspicious behavior? Homeland presents Carrie and Brody as equals you don't know who's right or wrong.
Since she became an enduring TV icon (a word I try not to throw around idly) as Angela Chase on My So-Called Life, Claire Danes has spent a lot of time in ensemble-cast movies (from Little Women to The Hours), but she still finds her best work in television. The Emmy-winning Temple Grandin was a striking example of the way Danes can burrow into a character without giving herself an I'm glammier than the person I'm playing exit strategy. The woman commits. On Homeland, she is an exceptionally committed CIA agent who might qualify to be committed. Carrie is brilliant and rebellious, but compromised by the fact that she's bipolar. Lewis is equally good, rendering Brody guarded and shut-down in a manner that is engrossing to witness. Executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who helped Jack Bauer avert national disasters on 24, now take a more measured, thoughtful look at terrorism. But that doesn't make what they show us any less frightening, or less exciting. A-