Because I write about movies and television professionally, I’ll admit there are some aspects of the whole Internet experience that are probably never going to be for me. I don’t post reviews on Amazon or IMDb, because I’m lucky enough to get paid for doing that elsewhere. I don’t have much interest in entering my favorite TV shows’ hashtags on Twitter and reading what random fans are saying about them, because I’d rather chat about them with my friends, or my readers. And because those two particular online endeavors don’t entice me, I’ve never seen the need to spend much time with any of the myriad apps that consolidate opinions, conversations, and trivia about television into what’s being called the “second screen.”
But the second-screen phenomenon has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Network executives are citing GetGlue ratings as a factor in their renewal decisions. More and more TV episodes are littered with special Twitter hashtags, along with pitches for dedicated apps that offer exclusive bonus content. The major TV content providers are working very hard right now to have a say in where and how fans gather to share their thoughts.
"The agency is a funny place, very insular. It's like middle-schoolers with clearances."
— A former CIA official, as quoted in the Washington Post, 12/10/12
"What is all this squishy bullshit?!?"
— A formerly living CIA official, as quoted last night on Homeland.
Other than Storage Wars, no current television program has received as much scrutiny for blurring the lines between reality and fiction as Homeland. In its schizoid second season, the reigning Best Drama Series — according to a plurality of Emmy voters and U.S. presidents, at least — has walked a wobbly tightrope in its attempts to balance plausibility and imagination, head and heart. After a breathless return that saw the show binging on plot like Carrie Mathison left alone with a box of Chardonnay, recent episodes have ranged far from the reservation, alienating wavering viewers with an abundance of action and a sudsy indulgence in doomy romanticism. But "The Choice" — last night's deeply satisfying, deeply moving season finale — was a reminder that this fundamental imbalance is Homeland’s greatest achievement.
Jessica Brody has just spent nearly a week trapped in a luxurious CIA penthouse making do with semi-decent wine, making time with her extramarital action figure, seeing her daughter freak out over spilled milk, and watching her husband choke back tears over the death of the man who tortured him for close to a decade. Rather than pique her curiosity, all of this has, in fact, shut it down entirely. "For the longest time, all I wanted was for you to tell me the truth," she tells Brody in the parked car that is their relationship. "I don't have to know anymore. I just don't want to."
It seems both convenient and counterproductive for Jess to take comfort in ignorance, especially to those of us impatiently waiting for next week's finale and its promise of either redemption or ruin for a sophomore season that's flirting with the edge. But if the episode briefly known as "The Motherfucker With a Turban" was about anything — and, let's be clear, at times it was hard to tell if it was — it was about Homeland’s particularly cynical view of truth: that, contra the black and white dogma of the Nazirs and Waldens of the world (RIP x2!) truth is entirely subjective, just another weapon to be used and abused, depending on who's doing the asking. Saul fights off the polygraph for the second time in a year — not because he's a mole, but because he knows the score: No matter his noble intentions, anything he says can and will be used against him by an even more dangerous motherfucker, this one in a slick suit. "The test is a goddamn farce," he barks. Sometimes it's better to keep the answers to yourself or, like Jess, just not know anything at all.
A month or so back I paid a visit to the Homeland set in Charlotte, North Carolina. I'll be writing more about my time there later this week, but I thought it was worth mentioning now since the scenes I watched being filmed all aired last night. Due to the choppy nature of TV shooting schedules, I had no idea just where the puzzle pieces I observed fit — I watched Claire Danes talk on her cell phone and get in her pre-crashed car over and over again for about an hour, leading me to assume the dramatic kidnapping was the episode's cliffhanger, not the inciting incident. I spent time with a mopey Dana and Finn on the roof and a frantic Saul and Virgil on the street, yet had absolutely no sense of what the hour was about or where it was heading.
Homeland is rightly lauded for many things, but humor is rarely among them. To be fair, topics like terrorism, mental health, and the unhygienic, lonely smearing of peanut butter onto crackers are not the stuff great comedies are made of. But was I wrong to see a few tendrils of winking good cheer peeking out from the cracks of what was otherwise a desperately tense hour? The first giveaway was the title: Last night's episode was called "I'll Fly Away," which, yes, helicopters. But "I'll Fly Away" was also the name of a critically adored NBC drama that aired two decades ago and gave Homeland writer Henry Bromell his start. (I'll Fly Away starred Regina Taylor as an African American maid and Sam Waterston as a liberal-ish Southern gentleman at the dawning of the civil rights era; forget the golden age of cable, you couldn't get such a high-minded series on the air today if Waterston also sold meth and Taylor moonlighted as the mother of dragons.)
And then there was the year-in-the-making moment in the motel with Carrie and Brody, during which the secret agent once again tapped that asset.
In fine-dining restaurants — places that serve the sort of thing that wouldn’t interest Carrie Mathison (i.e., food) — it’s traditional to serve a tart sorbet or granita as a palate cleanser. It’s a way to bridge the gap from one set of rich flavors to the indulgences still to come. It could be that I was merely hungry, but the thought did cross my mind that “A Gettysburg Address” was just that sort of intermezzo. Even a show like Homeland, which, in its riotously paced second season, has been binging on plot like a stoned sumo wrestler, has to ease back now and again. The delicious surprises of the past two weeks would be ruined without proper time to digest them.
Does that mean this was a lesser episode? Not necessarily. There was still much to savor, much of it in the form of the suddenly resurgent spy games. Two weeks ago, before Carrie dropped a bag over Brody’s head, flipping our expectations in the process, I wrote how I was fully prepared to enjoy the more traditional surveillance story that seemed on tap. I liked the return of Virgil and his long lens, the grimy, Wire-esque HQ, and the fun, friction-filled banter with temperamental cheesesteak-eater Peter Quinn. So while the target was no longer Brody, I liked that Homeland’s fallback setting still worked. If you strip away the probing psychodrama and the risky, high-wire script acrobatics, this is still a damn good undercover show, all furrowed brows, cats and mice and microphones that never seem to work when you need them to. Between last season’s bombing and this week’s fatal assignation, I’ll never look at fountains the same way again. (As for the continuing adventures of Encyclopedia Mike and his limping sidekick Lauder, the bearded blunderer, I’m less interested. Corporal Cuckolder may be a better man and a better match for Jessica than Brody is, but he’s certainly not a better character.)
The best thing I've seen in a movie theater so far this year was an intimate conversation. It occurred about a quarter of the way through The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's invigorating and infuriating three-hour tone poem about a guy who thinks with his own torpedo and guzzles oil out of the Navy's. Joaquin Phoenix — as said guy — and Philip Seymour Hoffman trade shots of poisonous moonshine and then lock horns and eyes for what feels like forever. The back-and-forth is part pseudo-religious "processing," part confessional, part testosterone thunder-yawp. Ostensibly, Hoffman is trying to unlock the darkest parts of Phoenix's twisted psyche, but it's as much about performance as power. Ferocious and precise, it's utterly mesmerizing and patently absurd, like watching grizzly bears arm-wrestle.
Almost from the start, Homeland seemed like a one-season premise, a more grounded kind of American Horror Story that could deliver some satisfying, thought-provoking thrills for a few weeks before flitting off to TV heaven and happily cementing its status as an all-time classic. Of course, Homeland was a critical and ratings success, and picked up six Emmys (including Outstanding Drama) for its freshman season, so unsurprisingly, Showtime demanded seconds. And now, equally unsurprisingly, thirds: The channel has announced that Season 3 of Homeland will begin filming this coming spring.
This is great news if you like Homeland, and somewhat concerning news if you like Homeland. The show has already been drastically resetting its board each week during the twist-heavy second season, but the most recent episode jumped past a season's worth of potential suspense and deliberation for what seems like a game-ender. How can Homeland possibly continue to be a Carrie/Brody-centric drama in 2013? Even though we're fairly certain executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon have an answer to that question, we thought we'd offer a few carefully considered suggestions.
One of the more eye-catching portions of my friend (and recent podcast guest!) Sean Howe’s new book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, occurs early on when Stan Lee, the mustachioed architect of the Marvel Universe, declares that the secret recipe for four-color success isn’t gamma rays or secret spider bites: It’s “the illusion of change.” Turns out, the trick to keeping the Merry Marvel Marching Society on its toes was creating a feeling of forward momentum while simultaneously guaranteeing that everything stayed exactly the same: No matter how many super-villains they conquered, by next issue the X-Men would always be hated and feared, Spider-Man would always be broke and misunderstood, and the Man-Thing would always be a lousy double entendre brought to swampy life. It was two steps forward, then two steps back; a perfectly calibrated process of pushing and pulling that felt like movement without taking you anywhere at all.
The thing that separates Carrie Mathison from the rest of her less-intelligent intelligence colleagues, in terms of ability and, at present, professional standing, is her tenacious, chemically unbalanced brain. Where others see problem solving as a linear list of questions and answers — the sort of methodical, putting-in-the-hours probing that allows for slivers of private life or, barring that, time to take traitorous journalists out for bistro fare on a Saturday night — Carrie views every clue and loose end the way Felix Baumgartner regards an open airplane window: just another thing at which to throw herself. There’s no "off" switch or timeouts, only the inevitable crash of impact.
Because of this, and despite her avid curiosity on the subject matter, I can’t help but think that Carrie wouldn’t be much of a Homeland fan. Without an elephant-size dose of lithium, she’s simply too hung up on details to sit quietly and be entertained. And accepting the fiction — not fighting it — is key to enjoying any genre exercise, even one as sharp and brainy as Homeland. The rise in popularity and prestige the show has experienced in its second season has also seen a wild increase in skepticism: Loose threads are being tugged, nits are being thoroughly picked. Don’t get me wrong: I respect this level of relentlessness in CIA agents, oncologists, and Batmen. But when it comes to TV, I’m less certain.
Chris and I recorded this pod late on Monday afternoon, after a long day of transcribing, power-chugging caffeine, and dispatching snatch teams throughout the Middle East. So it’s somewhat understandably all over the map, starting with Rick Ross’s Black Bar Mitzvah (1:30) and ending with an apocalyptic plague of viral vampires (42:50). In the meantime, we found time to laud Pitch Perfect (6:24) (and spar over its perfectly fine star, Anna Kendrick, a.k.a. Millennial America’s Sweetheart) and debate the merits of Homeland Season 2’s surprising second episode (17:00). From there, we let the leaves turn in our hearts and minds: Chris wanted to wax lyrical about the energy-efficient hayride he went on in Griffith Park while I was stuck previewing the new season of The Walking Dead (32:45), which returns on Sunday. A far less bloody, but no less gross program is also returning this week — FX’s The League — and both Chris and I celebrated the fact that one of our favorite things about it is that it consistently provides us with absolutely nothing to say. Ah, silence. The rarest commodity in a podcast. And the best part of any bar mitzvah, no matter the color. L’chaim!
Of all the subtle course-corrections showrunner Alex Gansa has made to Homeland since the pilot, my favorite might be the de-emphasizing of jazz. Carrie’s extensive Coltrane collection was, at first, a helpful shorthand for her anarchic brain. But as anyone who’s even spent more than five minutes with someone in a beret can tell you, it’s a slippery slope from rhythmic riffing to the exclusionary tooting of one’s own horn. We get how Carrie’s mind works by now because we’ve seen it unravel. Other than a few stray skronks in the still-goofy opening sequence, there hasn’t been any need to focus on the music-as-metaphor. Our understanding of Carrie is a credit to strong writing and Claire Danes’s remarkable performance, not the character’s fictional iTunes library.
Last week, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum made a strong argument against the fact that Homeland’s first season ended with an electroshock jolt instead of a bigger bang. I don’t dispute her premise: that capping the finale with the successful detonation of Sergeant Brody’s suicide bomb would have exploded everything we’ve come to expect about serialized TV. Eliminating a main character (and half of the fictional Cabinet) would have been a brave storytelling play, to be sure, but here’s the thing: It’s no more risky than what actually occurred. Brody may have been temporarily defused, but the dozens of tripwires laid in what turned out to be the most remarkable — and Emmy-winning! — first season in recent memory remain. Unlike movies, TV plays the long game; a lot more than Damian Lewis’s future podium trips would have been sacrificed along with his character had he gone through with Abu Nazir’s dastardly underground plot.
One month before he took to the podium to accept the Emmy for Best Drama Series, Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa took to the Grantland studio to discuss his show’s phenomenal first season and what to expect in season two, premiering this Sunday (9/30) on Showtime. In a fun and far-ranging conversation, Alex spoke to me about meeting his writing partner (and Homeland co-executive producer) Howard Gordon when both were frustrated fiction writers at Princeton, how they broke into Hollywood by tutoring the children of studio bosses, and what years spent toiling on The X-Files and 24 taught him about running his own show. Carrie-philes can relax: We didn’t reveal the identity of the mole and not a detail was spoiled about Season 2. Some things, like a first Emmy win, are worth waiting for.
Before "The Weekend," before "The Vest," before the rise of Mandy Patinkin beard fanfic, the most striking thing about Homeland was its lead character. Back in October, I wrote that Carrie Mathison was part of a proud tradition of Golden Age protagonists, “a complicated, complex character who manages to be both brutally effective and titanically troubled." The key difference was that Carrie, unlike, say, Tony Soprano, was the first to accomplish the feat in a pantsuit and pumps. On Monday, Showtime announced a smart plan to potentially double down on double X chromosome drama by signing Jodie Foster to produce, direct, and develop Angie’s Body, a mob series with a “shrewd and sexy” Godmother in the seat of power. (And, no doubt, some glittery codpieces replacing the g-strings at the Bada Bing.)