'Tis the season not to give yourself an ulcer over Homeland, guys. It is what it is, and Andy and I have repeatedly addressed this over the last month or so. We wanted to at least try to imbue this pod with something more joyous than "OMG CARRIE WTF!?" So with that in mind, and the holidays in our hearts, we decided to talk about a really great gift we've gotten this year from television: the British anthology series Black Mirror. Without giving much away about any one episode (for that, read Emily Yoshida's recaps here), Andy and I celebrate this truly amazing show and talk about whether anything like it could be replicated here.
This led to a discussion on the state of television, how NBC's gamble with the live Sound of Music paid off, and whether networks can get their swagger back with more inventive "big event" programming. Somewhere in there, we brought up Frances Ha. Obviously.
Then well, then we talked about Homeland. It is what it is. Happy holidays.
Andy Greenwald: Two years ago, after watching the first few episodes of Homeland, I wrote the following: "To be clear, [Carrie Mathison], as played by Claire Danes, is extremely good at her job. Too good, perhaps." At the time, I was struck by how Homeland was the rare show to directly challenge the male-dominated paradigm of prestige television. It wasn't afraid to portray Carrie breaking bad — binge drinking, whore's bathing — but it was also tough enough to suggest she wasn't fundamentally broken. She was the best at what she did, even though what she did wasn't very pretty.
How quickly things change. Last year, Carrie's supposedly unshakable love of country went weak in the knees in the face of her ardor for admitted terrorist Nicholas Brody. At season's end, she was so busy playing CIA-sanctioned footsie with him that she failed to notice the worst domestic attack since 9/11 being planned and carried out all around her. In the waning moments of the finale, rather than do her job and find out what, exactly, Brody knew, she came down with a case of the feelings (call it a different kind of Carrie fever) and escorted her suspicious prince to the Canadian border. Their farewell was rapturous. The resolution? Nonexistent.
Homeland might be charting some choppy waters this third season, but its legacy is still apparently powerful enough to inspire one heck of a delightfully odd development deal. As Deadline is reporting, the CW has signed off on a project that will "put ... its youthful stamp on the subject ... of terrorism." Am I ... am I getting that right? A terrorism drama ... for the Gossip Girl set? OK. OK. OK.
Every morning for the past three months I have watched The Best of Elmo. It's only 30 minutes long, so I usually watch it two or three times in a row. I watch it again after dinner. After 300 viewings, I now can't hear a tapping sound without humming "Happy Tapping With Elmo," and whenever I see a face, I identify the parts of it in Ernie's voice. I drink my coffee while Whoopi Goldberg explains to Elmo that she can't pull off her skin and hair and trade it for his fur, and eat my bagels to the trippy tune of "In Your Imagination." I have seen it more than any other film, television show, or commercial in my life; I have never wanted to see something 300 times, and if I did, I would not choose to watch Elmo. But I have no choice.
I see movies alone. I am happy to do so. Getting a babysitter and staring at your silent phone, waiting for it to light up in an emergency, is distracting. I have had to cut down on my movie theater quota and replace that time with the never-ending Elmo feature. I don't know what makes Elmo so seductive to people under the age of 3, but it's such a universal parent experience that you can identify your familiars at the grocery store (even when they're without their children) because they're picking up carrots and whispering "This is the song, la la la la, Elmo's Song," like they have been body-snatched and sent on a vegan zombie mission. But I forgive Elmo (and let's not confuse Elmo with Kevin Clash, the third puppeteer to provide his voice to the puppet, who faced charges of sexual abuse a year ago) for taking such a giant piece of my brain and using it to reteach me what a nose is and what a person can do if it rains and they don't have a driver's license or the ability to read and drink wine. I like Elmo (and the rest of the Sesame Street clan) because he acknowledges the adults who are in a media hostage situation.
Regular listeners of the pod may have noticed that Andy and I are having some issues with Homeland. For the last couple weeks, we've kicked the tires, keyed the car, and basically lit the old jalopy on fire. This week is no different in the sense that neither of us were all that impressed with the show we once counted as among the best on television, but our approach to talking about it was new. Andy and I both pitched ways forward for Homeland, imagining a Season 4 in which Carrie Mathison's nervous energy was somehow new.
Wu-Tang again? Again and again! On this week's podcast, Andy and I dug in the crates to appreciate one of the great, formative albums of our lifetime. Yes, mf'ers, it's torture. Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) turns 20 on November 9, and to celebrate, we talked about the lasting impact, our favorite members (Cappadonna definitely gets mentioned), and whether something as seismic as the Wu-Tang Clan could ever happen in today's culture. We also chatted briefly about the raw, wonderful rap of the mid-'90s that you could hear on Cassingles and 12-inch records. You're going to want to check out this Spotify playlist Andy dialed up to complement it all.
There has always been something grotty and amoral about Homeland. From the beginning, the show has presented a drone-cam vision of a topsy-turvy world, one devoid of good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. In fact, it's a world that barely qualifies as a world at all: just a daisy-chained collection of safe houses and cabins, of anodyne condos and sterile conference rooms populated by well-intentioned patsies, Machiavellian suits, and jacked-up spies too busy getting off on being watched to pay much attention to what's actually going on all around them.
And so, during my time away from the show these past three weeks (I was scoping out rental properties in Caracas; lots of open spaces but not much overhead — often literally), I actually came to appreciate the greasy film of seediness and disgust coating the A-story in this challenging third season. With Brody's ghost haunting the margins and his body covered in track marks in a Venezuelan squat, the remaining characters have seemingly given up any pretense of doing their jobs. Instead they're stuck in frustrating, self-made ruts: crazed Carrie flushing pills and circling the drain; cuckolded Saul playing checkers while his enemies, at home and abroad, play chess; Quinn driving around dumbly in an SUV and slipping through the sliding glass doors like some desperate, suburban security guard. In the wake of the 12/12 bombing, the actual adults have returned to wrest control of national security from a rogue cabal of homegrown emotional terrorists who came close to wrecking the country over a high-stakes game of footsie. At times it has seemed to me as if Homeland is admitting something about itself with this dead-end twiddling. It's the sight of a mistaken-for-highbrow show coming clean about its own filthy heart.
Three episodes into its third season seems a bit early for a show to have split its fan base into distinct, warring factions — Breaking Bad, by contrast, waited until the very last hour. But Homeland has never been a particularly patient series, so here we are. On one side of the divide are the Brody Banishers, die-hard fans who feel frustrated by Sergeant Nick's stubborn refusal to die. To their eyes, Homeland is still a worthy show, but one being held back by its slavish devotion to the diminishing returns offered by its original story line. On the other side are the True ’Shippers, those who feel — not unjustly — that Homeland elevates only when its two touched-in-the-head leads are furiously touching each other. (The True ’Shippers, I should add, would have a much stronger case if Carrie and Brody's names lent themselves to a catchy portmanteau like all other important 21st century couples: Bennifer, Kimye, et al. But "Brarie" has unfortunate connotations and "Carrody" sounds gross.)
If last week's recap didn't make it clear, I've been firmly planted in the banishment camp ever since the second-season finale. That was when Carrie, in the post-crater chaos, fled Langley and pushed her ginger gentleman across the Canadian border. (Sorry, Canada! He's your problem now. Consider this payback for Tom Green.) By choosing exile over death, I thought showrunner Alex Gansa had stumbled upon the ideal way to have his Emmy-winning cake and eat it too. With Brody gone for at least half a season — and ideally more — Homeland could get down to the busy, necessary work of securing itself against other threats and prepping for other story lines. One True Pairings like Carrie and Brody can easily sink a show, even if said Pairings aren't explicitly intended to be romantic. Like a blackjack dealer in Vegas, a showrunner is nothing if he can't repeatedly shuffle his own deck.
Nobody says "movie magic" anymore because it is not 1955, but corny or not, that is basically the subject of the first 30 minutes of this week's pod. Andy and I were starstruck, slack-jawed, and overjoyed upon viewing Alfonso Cuarón's space disaster, Gravity. It's the best 3-D movie ever (shout-out to Unobtainium), and easily one of the best films of the year. We talked George, Sandra, the fact that you must see this movie in theaters, how more movies should be like that, and whether it matters that this movie, one that gets so many things so right, apparently gets the science of outer space so wrong (spoiler: It doesn't matter).
We came crashing back to Earth with a discussion about the disappointing third season of Homeland. We mourned for Dana and speculated about where Peter Quinn shops. Hey, it beats actually talking about Homeland.
If Homeland's title had ever intended to double its length, I'd always assumed the missing word would be "security." But two seasons and two episodes in, I now think "stability" is a better fit. In a country as big as ours and with psyches as damaged as the ones belonging to these protagonists, stability seems like a much more workable objective, something more pliable and forgiving than the all-or-nothing implications of security. After all, when do you know something is truly secure? When it has been tested? Or after it has failed? In matters relating to both bureaucracies and mental health, a status quo is much preferable to any sort of dramatic swing — regardless of the direction.
And yet, after two installments of this treacherous third season, stability continues to seem well out of reach for all involved. Carrie in particular has devolved into the hottest of messes. After Saul threw her under the wheels of the Senate bus, she spent the opening moments of the wonderfully titled "Uh ... Oh ... Ah ..." bursting into his home in search of ... well, it's not quite clear. Revenge? The last word? Yes, Carrie's bipolar, but her real weakness is her tendency toward binary thinking: Those who aren't with her are immediately assumed to be against her. The only gray area she ever tolerated was the one she found between the sheets with Brody. In lieu of foreign enemies, Carrie has now settled for domestic ones. (I guess it helps that Saul will never pull an Abu Nazir and confuse things by shaving.) After freaking out Mira, Carrie headed straight to the de-mothballed set of All the President's Men in order to suicide bomb herself in the most spectacular way possible.
For the last six years, Breaking Bad has blinded us with science. Wrapping up its run this past Sunday night, Vince Gilligan's little epic about this American life introduced us to Walter White, one of the truly indelible characters in the history of television. The show also instigated more debate, more theories, more nit-picking, and more hand-wringing than anything on TV since Lost. So obviously Andy and I talked about the Beatnuts, Jesse's woodworking, the fates of our favorite characters, and the future of narrative television.
While Breaking Bad was having its grand finale, Homeland and Masters of Sex made their big entrances. While the former was returning for its third season, and the latter was just starting, they both made us wonder: Where the hell do we go from here? I'm sure Psycho Les and JuJu have the answer.
Breaking Bad sledgehammered its own viewership records over and over during its final eight-episode run, and Sunday night's disappointingly cat-free finale — very solid in other aspects, though! — was no exception. After last week's all-time high of 6.6 million viewers, "Felina" drew 10.3 million slobbering fans, 6.7 million of them coming from the Get That Cheddar demographic occasionally referred to as the 18-49 set. Only The Walking Dead has beaten those numbers for AMC's original programming. There were also 1.24 million tweets, so that's good, even if the #goodbyebreakingbad hashtag was gross and weird. BrBa's premiere, back on January 20, 2008, pulled a scant 1.41 million viewers, and, per THR, "only cracked the 2 million mark on one occasion during the first four seasons." Heisenwalt’s empire grew quite impressive indeed — even if, as this groundbreaking clip suggests, everything almost turned out a lot differently and more Quantum Leap–y.
There has always been a strong element of silliness to Homeland, but the way it has been handled has been consistently smart. At its very best, the show mimicked not the plausible particulars of our national security mechanism, but instead the real emotional mania that has rumbled like a subway line beneath the insecure decade since 9/11. Claire Danes's Carrie Mathison was so spooked and ravaged by the massive intelligence failure that defined the beginning of her career that she'd lost all perspective on what she was looking for; in her medically maintained head, the ideas of saving her country and saving herself had become dangerously intertwined. By asking questions that were almost impossibly crazy — a Marine hero turned Al Qaeda sleeper? Turned congressman? Turned presidential running mate? Turned CIA asset/doomed hero? — Homeland actually found a way to dramatize ideas that were uncomfortably, often painfully, true. How can we spy on the world without taking a hard look at ourselves? Do we want actual security or just the illusion of safety? And is one more possible than the other?
Though the show's second season wasn't nearly as catastrophic as some critics maintain — in fact, some of it was outrageously good — its latter half did give itself over to a certain kind of madness. Part of it was commercial: In a business as unpredictable as television, it's awfully hard to kill off an Emmy-winning co-lead, no matter what the facts on the ground are telling you. But even reasonable business decisions can have creative consequences. Despite Damian Lewis's dwindling usefulness, Homeland’s brain trust seemed so wedded to the idea of keeping him employed that it transformed Carrie and Brody's fatal attraction into a full-fledged harlequin romance, thus imbuing something wonderfully twisted with a bogus, unpalatable righteousness. The two had an extraordinary connection, sure, but it's the same one an addict has with the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Pretending otherwise seemed to serve Homeland’s long-term viability more than its audience. Mistaking the couple's kink for commitment felt like staging a Catholic wedding in an S&M dungeon, and it was about as easy to watch.