The Real Problem with 'Homeland'

A humble request to all the Internet whiners, on the occasion of the end of a ridiculous second season: Remember that Showtime's Big Important Show was never that good to begin with. Just enjoy the silly trip.

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One of the loudest times of the week to be on the Internet — specifically Twitter, if you follow as many TV obsessives as we do — is Sunday night from around 10 p.m. to midnight. Because that's when all the screen-addled folks around the nation are watching Showtime's Homeland, alternately freaking out from giddy excitement or dismay and disappointment. The Emmy Award-winning show's second season has been a deliriously bumpy ride, careening around nervy twists and losing a tire or two in some serious plot holes. And thus the TV people react, in dramatic fashion. Lately the episodes have been over-the-top ridiculous, which has resulted in clothes-rending revolt and strange theories that attempt to explain the unexplainable. You see, these poor souls have been operating under a false premise. They are upset when Homeland is bad because they have forgotten or ignored one key fact: Homeland was never that good.

Now, now, I'm not really saying that Homeland was or is bad, exactly. I'm simply saying that it was never the unimpeachable hallmark of quality television that people are now implying that it once was. I mean, why else would everyone be so upset now if they hadn't once thought it brilliant television? That's a problem of expectations. If you go back to the beginning and accept as a given that Homeland is an undeniably entertaining thriller but not exactly a credible intelligence drama, then you won't be so disappointed when, say, big bad guy Abu Nazir does something so head-thunkingly stupid it's a wonder he managed to survive in an abandoned factory for a coupla days, let alone infiltrate a country where he is the government's most-wanted man. If you can simply enjoy Carrie running around in tunnels against all common reason and protocol, chalking it up not solely to the character's mental problems but also to the show's own hunger for the ridiculous, then it's quite a good time! But if you expect something remotely realistic or even logical, well then, you've been looking in the wrong place this whole time.

Let's go back to the first season. That was pretty solid, top-drawer premium cable TV stuff, right? Won the Emmy, after all. Well, yes, it did certainly win, but let's actually look at the content. This was a show about a potentially schizophrenic CIA intelligence analyst who went rogue and had an affair with a suspect in a major terrorism investigation and other CIA people knew about it — both the disease and the affair — and didn't really do anything. That should raise some believability alarms, I think. Not that it wasn't wildly entertaining — it certainly was — but nothing about the plot should have ever indicated to anyone that this was going to be a show that played by some sort of sense-making rule book. And about those CIA people: Why are there only ten people in the whole CIA? Where is everyone else? It would be understandable if it was something like, say, The X-Files and a small group of people worked on a small set of strange cases. But this is, presumably, the biggest terrorism investigation going at the moment, and yet about six people are working on it, one of whom is a known crazy person whose default setting is too-close-to-the-case. So what exactly about the first season made anyone think that this show was ever going to make sense?

This season people are getting angry about — spoilers ahead, etc. — Brody having unfettered access to VP Walden, and yet they overlook that he was allowed to do any of this in the first place. You can't criticize the particular details of Brody's double-agent mission as logistical errors when the entire mission doesn't make sense. Who on earth would have approved this mess in the first place, in real life? Sure, sure, he's the only one who could get them to Nazir (although, in the end, it's Nazir who gets them to Nazir, by kidnapping Carrie), but they leave him so unattended that he can just up and murder some old man in the woods? And then viewers are upset that he's allowed to use the VP's bathroom? (Yes, things had changed by that point in the season, but still.) The point is that the show has trafficked in narrative fancifulness since it began; it's not some new phenomenon. I suppose it's possible that the plot turns have gotten even more outlandish and improbable than they used to be, but we are still dwelling in the same general realm of fantasy.

And, hey, it's super fun to make fun of Chris Brody this season, because what a dumb dopey character that poor kid is, but, uh, the family plot line has been stupid since the show began. Homeland? Get it? Like, the US but also Brody's house? Ick. It's a terrible double entendre and it represents a two-season-long slog through predictable, clichéd family drama that has only very rarely enriched the main espionage thrust of the show. Poor Juilliard grad Morena Baccarin has been forced to stand in that kitchen sadly or angrily saying "Brody!" while sporting a series of bad haircuts for two seasons now. Sure, she had that moment this season when she got to give a big speech because Brody was too busy murdering the old man in the woods, but where did that plot line go, exactly? Nowhere. Brody wasn't ushered in to a new and precarious political life. He went nuts and quit and helped kill the VP, leaving Jessica to go back to sadly saying "Brody..." And Dana with her car accident? We have one episode left and that plot line has gone nowhere. Maybe we'll be surprised and there will be some tying up of loose ends next week, but as it stands now? A show that's supposed to be a prickly counter-terrorism drama has wasted a good bulk of its time on a teenager feeling guilty about a teen driving accident. Why, Homeland? And, more importantly, why would anyone then get upset when that same show doesn't perfectly explain how a particular phone call worked? Guys, this has always been a goofy series, so let's not suddenly get mad at particular goofiness. Just enjoy the silly trip.

Homeland is probably as close as Showtime has ever come to a real, HBO-level prestige drama — one that's engaging and artistic at the same time, a rare alchemy that HBO is somehow able to perform time and time again. The best HBO shows may have some occasional bobbles here and there, but they rarely happen because the show wasn't smart enough. But Showtime is a different animal. Sure, they have their lavish costume dramas and their high-profile star vehicles. But The Tudors was a lot of trashy bodice ripping without Game of Thrones's knotty, satisfying storytelling. And Nurse Jackie or The Big C or whatever other lady-with-problems half-hour we're talking about were never quite sharp enough to resonate in a lasting cultural way, like Sex and the City, nor have they been well-executed enough to compete with something like Enlightened. Even something like HBO's Entourage — sun-kissed, horndog male wish fulfillment — becomes a sleazy bore when it's transferred to Showtime and renamed Californication. So I'm not sure what exactly people were expecting from Homeland. This isn't the BBC, it ain't State of Play. This is a pot-boiler about a lunatic rogue CIA agent having graphic sex with her terrorist boyfriend while his emotionally troubled daughter screams and cries. It's that kind of a show. And on that kind of a show you know what sometimes happens? Sometimes the bad guy's plan is a little fuzzy or not that well thought-out. Sometimes phone taps disappear between episodes. Sometimes crazy people wander into dark abandoned factories with nothing but a lead pipe, thinking they might get their gun-wielding guy. I know that would never happen on some savvy series about intelligence and geopolitics, but this isn't that series. And it never was.

So let's try this: Should next Sunday's season finale be an explosion of nonsense or too-convenient plot twists or irrational character behavior, don't get upset. Don't wring your hands and question what went wrong, what shark was jumped and where. Simply think long and hard about what Homeland has been since the beginning. Crazy plot shifts are what this series is all about; the unexplainable has always been unexplainable. I mean, they deputized a woman who had electroshock therapy and was in a mental institution to travel to a foreign country and contact a tenuous asset and organize a sting on several highly wanted terrorists. That season premiere made for great television, I know. But, c'mon. It was pretty silly, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.