With a Metacritic score of 91, Showtime's Homeland is by far the critical darling of the fall television season. In fact, it ranks as one of the biggest critical hits since the advent of Metacritic, good enough for 8th place all-time, putting it ahead of Louie's second season and Breaking Bad's third season, in my opinion two of the most impressive feats in the history of television.
We'll see if that holds, and if the tension-packed initial narrative can eventually draw to a satisfying close. To be sure, Homeland is intriguing, nuanced and more promising than anything Showtime has done before. But I'll be honest, I'm not getting it.
Okay, let me clarify: I get why the show is compelling. I get that it's one of the most impressive new shows we've seen in a while. Homeland has absolutely entered my weekly viewing routine. Claire Danes plays the role of mentally unstable CIA analyst Carrie Mathison so well I forget it's her, which is my amateurish benchmark for determining good acting. Damian Lewis plays rescued Marine POW/possible Al-Qaeda mole Nicholas Brody with taut energy and enough layers that it's difficult to pin him down, but he gets the military ethos. Morenna Baccarin, who plays Brody's wife, is pretty great.
But the further we get in the narrative, the more noticeable the cracks. There is something about Homeland that feels second-rate, and I find myself thinking the same thing over and over: HBO and AMC would not do things this way.
Let's start with the opening title theme, because that's a big deal to me. Homeland's is one of the worst I've seen. But you don't have to take my word for it!
Guh. Between the shot of eyes, the kid in the maze with a lion mask, the trumpet bleats, and the upside-down clip of Barack Obama, it's like a freshman film student's initial forays into avant garde, only if the film student had no sense of hearing, was the most pretentious person in his class, and the film school was University of Phoenix. It's absurdly heavy-handed. Here's how my friend Tyler put it: "I feel like they're trying to make sure we grasp the idea of terrorism and homeland security. We're aware, Showtime. We're all familiar with the concepts."
It would be difficult to work through my other issues with the show without explaining substantial portions of the plot. For the most part, the dialogue and acting is solid, even in minor characters. I'm especially drawn to Mandy Patinkin's role as a grizzled intelligence veteran, a role that sounds cliche and probably would be in the hands of a less dynamic character actor. But there are too many eye roll inducing moments to discount, the sort of moments that simply don't happen on HBO unless Paz de la Huerta is involved. It's too clear, at too many times, that Homeland is not produced by the network that brought us The Sopranos and The Wire, or Breaking Bad and Mad Men. It's produced by the network that brought us Weeds and Dexter, two good shows that fall well short of great.
With Homeland, Showtime has its best show to move up the ladder. A score of 91 may be high, but I would definitely put the show in the mid-80s. Still, it's startling to realize the gulf between good and great depends so heavily on small details, and to realize that gulf is still very wide.