Sarah Crompton is blown away by Homeland, the new spy thriller starring Damian Lewis.
Talk about grabbing you from the start. Homeland (Channel 4) opens in the most visceral way, with Claire Danes’s agent Carrie Mathison screeching to a halt in a traffic jam in Baghdad while talking frantically on the phone to her CIA bosses about a bomber who is soon to be executed. Within seconds, as she races to hear his whispered testimony – that an American soldier has been “turned” by al-Qaeda – you are sucked into a whirlwinding plot.
This is exactly what you would expect from the producers of 24, that paranoid masterpiece where good Americans raced against the clock to save the world. But this opening sequence is ultimately misleading: the appeal of Homeland turns out to be both darker and slower than its predecessor, hinging ultimately on the unknowability of the human soul.
The original format came from Israeli TV, and on the basis of this and In Treatment you can only wonder just how good Israeli television must be. But the fact that it sprang from a country that is permanently fearful perhaps explains the urgency and reality of its premise.
Homeland really begins 10 months after that frantic start, when Mathison learns that US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody has been released after eight years in captivity. He’s being feted by the political elite as a returning hero, but she immediately suspects he is a double agent – and starts to spy on him to prove it. These scenes are chillingly uncomfortable. As Damian Lewis’s wounded Brody, haunted by scenes of torture, tries to reconnect with the family to whom he is a stranger – virtually raping his wife – we watch with Mathison, trying to weigh up which strands of his agony are real.
Lewis is magnificent, his American accent entirely convincing, his face a mask, but his eyes full of pain and doubt. Danes is staggering too, because Mathison is not a simple heroine, but a messed-up loner, self-medicating her psychosis and at odds with her bosses, even Mandy Patinkin’s bearded intellectual, a man inclined to believe her until she makes a clumsy attempt to seduce him. The scene where she tries on sexy outfits before she heads out in search of casual sex is genuinely exposing: we see not just her body but her uncertainty and unhappiness.
But every character is hiding something, from Brody’s wife (Morena Baccarin), whom we see having an affair with his upright best friend, to David Harewood, silkily smooth as the CIA deputy director who conceals his icy ambitions beneath a patriotic veneer.
In each scene, we the viewers are made complicit in the action. We know, as Mathison does not, that Brody’s flashbacks make her suspicions likely to be true. But we also know that nothing is as it seems. We are as paranoid and afraid as it is possible to be while sitting at home in an armchair. This is thrilling, clever, beautifully made television, with a plot that turns so fiercely that it is almost impossible to look away.
During the first and best series of 24 – before it became obsessed with torture – I asked a BBC drama executive why it was so much better than anything on British television at the time. “Because they’ve got the money to launch a helicopter and blow it up,” she said.