Be prepared to be obsessed - Homeland has this effect on the viewer. Even Channel 4’s creative chief Jay Hunt has admitted she was ‘obsessed’ with buying the show after watching the pilot last year.
The story deals with Sergeant Nicholas Brody, missing in action in Iraq for more than seven years, suddenly discovered in the locked basement of an Al-Qaeda stronghold resembling a trustafarian after a particularly gruelling Glastonbury. He’s a hero and he’s coming home.
But there’s a but. CIA operative Carrie Mathison has information - that a captive US combatant had been ‘turned’ by Al-Qaeda. Until Brody’s discovery there had been no knowledge of any captive US combatants. Perhaps Brody is not a hero at all, but a terrorist threat.
So begins a monumental mind-game between Brody, played with total conviction by Brit actor Damian Lewis, and Mathison, edgily played by Romeo and Juliet star Claire Danes.
“It is brave to put bi-polar into a thriller. It allows us to judge her - is she suffering from bouts of insanity, or do you believe Brody?”
The first episode features nudity, torture, espionage, murder, and one of the most awkward sex scenes ever seen on TV, when Brody is reacquainted with his wife in the bedroom after almost 8 years.
The sight of Lewis, better known as Soames Forsyte from ITV’s Forsyte Saga, covered in blood and hanging naked from the ceiling while under torture shows how far the actor has moved away from the costume drama that made his name, and he now seems certain to enter the Hollywood A-list.
“The torture days were flippin’ cold because you are naked. Everyone on set is very sensitive. Everyone turns away and just gets on with it. I don’t take my work home - I’m not a method actor. I do engage on set, but then forget all about it.”
Lewis did research his role by meeting ex-combatants suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to inform his role, and re-read Brian Keenan’s account of his incarceration in Beirut, An Evil Cradling.
The result is a character that oozes menace, coming home from Iraq with a chilling thousand-yard stare and speaking in brooding monosyllables until he is on TV, and suddenly springs to life with perfect pitch as the nation’s favourite. “He got game” quips one of the CIA operatives.
Like The Wire, Homeland has a pair of British actors at its core - Lewis is joined by David Harewood as CIA chief of counterintelligence David Estes. Harewood is a well-known face on British TV dramas and has played both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but he says meaty roles such as this are impossible in the UK.
“There are not that many authoritative, strong black roles. That’s a fact. A lot of black actors go to the US. Idris Elba told me he was going to the US, and I asked him - ‘Why?’ Then he came back and did Luther, and now he’s a national treasure. I wouldn’t have been given a role of that weight and authority here.”
Unlike The Wire, which puzzles the new viewer with an incomprehensible set-up, language and plot, Homeland is engrossing from the get go, is dense with plot and can certainly survive repeated viewings.
The other central performance is by Claire Danes and another reason to watch. Her character’s driven, almost obsessive fixation on Brody and the threat he may pose is made more complex when we learn the character has mental health issues.
Harewood plays her boss. “It is a bi-polar condition and it opened the show to dealing with it. Homeland is prepared to show what’s it’s like to be unstable. It is the first time someone has done this [on a mainstream show].”
Lewis says the portrayal adds to the paranoia and intrigue. “It is brave to put bi-polar into a thriller. It allows us to judge her - is she suffering from bouts of insanity, or do you believe Brody?”
The mystery over Brody’s character is the heart of the show. Danes’ character Mathison quickly pokes holes in his story - why was he kept alive, and smuggled to both Syria and Afghanistan, over almost 8 years, if he was of no use to Al-Qaeda?
The answers, or lack of them, keep you guessing. But Lewis has some clues to what may happen. “It was important to me that any conversion by Brody must be active - no Manchurian Candidate style brainwashing. This is far more subversive and interesting. Or at least there is this possibility - I’m not going to give any of the story away.
“It is a distinction between being turned and actively becoming a Muslim. I would not have taken the role if there were any lazy comparisons between violence and Islam. Brody has to make his own choice. If he is ‘turned’, that is something else.”
“We shot the pilot, and then Bin Laden was killed. I think one scene was re-written to reflect that. Those shows [24 and Homeland] book-end these two events - 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, and allows us to look back at the last 10 years, and the reasons behind going into Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Both Harewood and Lewis agree that politically, Homeland has a generally left-of-centre view. This compares to allegations that executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa made an unashamedly ‘Republican’ drama in their previous thriller - 24.
Harewood says: “We shot the pilot, and then Bin Laden was killed. I think one scene was re-written to reflect that. Those shows [24 and Homeland] book-end these two events - 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, and allows us to look back at the last 10 years, and the reasons behind going into Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Making longform shows like Homeland is apparently impossible in the UK. We do drama well, with the world’s most depressing soaps and amazing one-offs or specials, but not the series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and The West Wing the US networks produce so brilliantly.
Lewis says it is part of the US tradition of film-making brought to television. “It is in American DNA. It is not here - we have a theatrical tradition, and these talents are brought to the TV, but it is often of the ‘talking heads’ style,” he says.
“Also costs - their development process means spending $5m, $6m, $7m on a pilot and filming it, but even then not doing anything with it. They have lots more money to play around with.”
The show was adapted from an Israeli show Hatufim, which explored the suspicion held of returning soldiers. “In the Israeli series, it explored the interrogation or re-interrogation of returning soldiers, who are often actively kept from their families. Here they added the CIA element. So the show is the same concept but changed enormously,” says Lewis.
Despite becoming two of the hottest actors on the planet, Harewood and Lewis can still be starstruck. Harewood says he was reduced to “A gibbering wreck” when meeting his hero Sidney Poitier at the recent Golden Globes, where Homeland won for Best TV drama and Claire Danes won best actress for her portrayal as Mathison.
Lewis met one of his heroes on-set in Mandy Patinkin, who plays Mathison’s handler Saul Berenson. He has one of the most famous movie roles of all time in The Princess Bride, with the line, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,”. “I said this to him when I first met him. I felt like a right tit.”
Other stuff that may interest you...
Click here for more stories about TV & Film
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook