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Although its main character, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is a bipolar CIA officer who must take medication to keep from suffering mental breakdowns and who frequently violates all kinds of protocols—even sleeping with the targets of her investigation—the Showtime television drama Homeland, which premiered in 2011, has become a favorite at CIA headquarters.
“There is an appreciation for the show [in national security circles],” confirmed Alex Gansa, Homeland’s co-creator. “We really did not hear any criticism officially or in a back channel way about the show or the character [from the CIA].”
The original idea for Homeland came from an Israeli television series called Hatufim, or Prisoners of War, which depicted Israeli soldiers returning from years in captivity, a classic homecoming yarn as old as The Odyssey. But over several seasons, Homeland has become a platform for Gansa to explore all the most compelling and controversial aspects of the war on terror from a reliably pro-CIA point of view. “We do not pull punches,” Gansa insisted. “We are critical of our protagonist and the goals her superiors task her with. We try in a vigorous way to show both sides and not be polemic.”
Gansa said the show has never filmed inside Langley headquarters, but he and several actors from the show were invited to spend the day there. “We sat across the desk from twenty or thirty intelligence officers.” At one point, CIA Director John Brennan made an appearance. While visiting CIA headquarters, Mandy Patinkin, who plays the role of Mathison’s boss—Saul Berenson, chief of Middle East operations—was allowed to visit Brennan’s office. “Then a very funny thing happened,” recalled Gansa. “They separated the people who had been born in the United States and those where were not.” This group included Gansa himself, who was born in the Philippines, as well as the British actor Damien Lewis, and the Brazilian-American actress Morena Baccarin. “We were not allowed in that part of the building where you could see an actual undercover person. We weren’t even allowed where the gift shop was because you could possibly see into the cafeteria. We were feeling very left out.”
There’s a revolving door between the CIA and Hollywood regarding shows like Homeland. After two seasons, as Homeland’s focus shifted overseas and began to hew more closely to real events, Gansa offered a consulting job to the former CIA deputy director John MacGaffin, whose cousin, Henry Bromell, was one of the show’s original writers and whose father, Leon, had served as a CIA officer in Cairo, Tehran, and Kuwait. A successful screenwriter for Homicide: Life on the Street and Northern Exposure, among others, Bromell died of a heart attack in 2013. “Henry would call me occasionally when he was doing things, including the first part of Homeland,” MacGaffin recalled. “I’d give him clear and candid answers, and realized he was giving them to all the writers. At his funeral, I met Alex Gansa and he introduced me to all the writers. They told me that whenever they got stuck [on a story problem], they would say, ‘Let’s talk to John MacGaffin.’ I’m glad I didn’t know or I would have failed all my polygraph tests.”