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TV Review: There's no place like Homeland

HOMELAND is back, bringing with it a familiar sensation: that gut-tightening feeling of not knowing what's going to happen from one scene to the next as the plot rapidly coils itself around you. The big worry is whether Homeland will be able to sustain the momentum of its edge-of-the-seat first series.

After this scintillating opener, I'm convinced it will.

Six months have passed since the bipolar ex-CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) had the electric shock treatment that wiped out, temporarily at least, the knowledge that war hero-turned-US congressman Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was turned by al-Qa'ida leader Abu Nazir during his eight years in captivity.

She's living the quiet life, pottering around her father's garden and teaching English to foreign students. But like Al Pacino in The Godfather III, just when she thinks she's out, they pull her back in again.

All it takes is a summons from Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and a visit from loathsome CIA boss David Estes (David Harewood), the man who destroyed her career.

Saul, his marriage in tatters, is back in the field in Lebanon, where tensions and American flags are ablaze following an Israeli attack on a nuclear facility in Iran.

The Agency has been approached by a woman, the wife of a Hezbollah commander, who Carrie once recruited as an asset. She has information about a planned attack on America, but the only one she'll speak to is Carrie. Within days Carrie, sporting brown hair, brown contact lenses and a fake passport, is in Lebanon to liaise with her contact.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Brody -- who's being groomed by Vice-President Walden (Jamey Sheridan) to be his running mate for Walden's own run at the White House -- is also being sucked back in.

He's visited by a pretty female journalist Roya Hammad (Zulheika Robinson) who reveals herself as an agent of Abu Nazir, who has a job for Brody: he wants him to obtain a list of potential terrorist targets, which is stored in Estes's office safe.

Brody, who sees his role as influencing future American foreign policy, rather than carrying out direct acts of espionage or terrorism, is appalled but does it anyway, copying the list to a notebook while Roya distracts Estes. So far, so gripping. But the beauty of Homeland lies in the small, electrifying details that convey so much about what the characters are feeling. Such as the fleeting sneer of disdain disguised as a smile that crosses Brody's face when he casually quizzes Estes about US government drones -- the weapons of war that killed Abu Nazir's young son, Isa, who Brody had been tutoring -- and receives an offhand reply.

It's this tiny, almost throwaway moment, rather than the exchange between Brody and Roya, that convinces Brody to crack Estes's safe.

Similarly, Carrie's darting, tormented eyes tell us she's terrified of falling apart again.

At the same time, though, her giddy, exhilarated grin after she disarms and disables (with a crunching knee to the groin) a Lebanese cop on her tail shows she's thrilled to be back in the old game.

But the most powerful, possibly most pivotal moment comes on the domestic front. Brody's daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) is now attending a swanky private school she hates. During a heated class debate on politics and religion, Dana blurts out that her father is a Muslim. It's laughed off as a joke, yet when the news from the school reaches Brody's wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin), Brody is forced to admit the truth.

When Jessica flings his copy of the Koran across the garage, he rages: "It's not supposed to touch the floor!"

It's been suggested in some quarters that Homeland didn't deserve the Best Drama Emmy, and that the award should perhaps have gone to Breaking Bad.

I don't know about that.

But I do know one thing: at the moment, and hopefully for the next 11 weeks, Homeland is the best thing in my TV world.

Homeland 5/5