'Homeland' hits home with viewers

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in Homeland (Season 2, Episode 2). Photo Credit: Showtime

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Emmy-winning "Homeland," the most celebrated series in Showtime's history -- which returns Sunday night at 10 -- ended its first season in December with a bang. Or four of them, for those keeping count. Former POW and Stockholm syndrome victim Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) hatched a plan with his al-Qaida captor to get near the vice president, who is running for president. The candidate, William Walden (Jamey Sheridan), was responsible for a monstrous crime -- a drone strike he ordered on a Middle Eastern country that killed 82 children, including the son of Brody's captor -- which he has since tried to cover up. Walden's accuser, CIA career man Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) learns that the agency's counterterrorism chief, David Estes (David Harewood), was behind the drone strike as well.

Finally, the biggest bang of all: Bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison, played to harrowing and slightly deranged perfection by Claire Danes, decided to have her memory broomed away. Everything -- most notably the real truth about Brody as well as her fraught love for him -- was apparently expunged in one long, grueling electroshock-therapy session that left 4 million-plus fans drenched in sweat and wondering: With Carrie's mind and memory gone, what's left?

Successful TV series, you'll note, have a long history of dangling their protagonists (and viewers) off the edge of cliffs. Stuff usually works out, and the show goes on. But this particular show has more than its share of stuff. Specifically how much longer can Brody realistically play the "Manchurian Candidate" before this all gets ... well ... loopy? And with Carrie now a blank slate, how to reanimate that strange, passionate and (above all) self-destructive relationship with Brody that propelled the first season right up to the jaw-clenching conclusion?

A thinking person's '24'

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There's a certain urgency to the answers, particularly for Showtime, which sees "Homeland" as its own "Sopranos," as well as for fans who seem to have embraced this as the thinking person's "24," or at least a more plausible extension of the classic Fox series.

Initially adapted from the 2009 Israeli series "Hatufim" ("Prisoner of War"), "Homeland" quickly set off on its own, staking new territory and resonating in ways no one could have (or actually did) anticipate. President Barack Obama counts himself a faithful viewer, while Danes and Lewis won Emmys last Sunday for outstanding lead actress and actor in a drama.

As it happens, the creative forces behind "Homeland" were surprised by the success, too. "We feared it might be uninteresting to people who might have felt fatigued about what's going on in the news or had watched '24,'" says Howard Gordon, a co-executive producer and former showrunner for the Kiefer Sutherland series. "It turned out that people were as interested in the subject matter as we were," adds Gordon, who grew up in Roslyn.

Part of "Homeland's" appeal is its trademark blend of fiction and fact. The series butts up against real-world events and paranoia in most every scene, at times even seeming to anticipate them. The illusion works by asking that if those events in the background are vividly real, why can't those in the foreground -- Brody, Carrie and a CIA riddled with corruption and deadly secrets -- be as well? It's a trick that's been used in movies, like 2005's "Syriana," which was a "Homeland" inspiration, though less often in a TV series.

Mostly, though, "Homeland" is set in a world a decade after 9/11. That moment in time -- which is this moment in time -- is its canvas.

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Alex Ganza, the other co-executive producer and another longtime "24" producer, says that "any intelligence work that's conducted these days is going to run smack into various questions, like 'at what level are we willing to abrogate our civil liberties to the state?' That's a debate that's going on right now, and we wanted to reflect that but not answer it. The big question of last season is how should America project its power overseas, and how should we go about degrading al-Qaida? That's how we got into the murky areas of these drone strikes and the extrajudicial nature of them, contrasted with how incredibly effective they've been."

What's ahead?

The second season begins in a Middle East thrown into war and chaos in the wake of an Israeli attack on five Iranian nuclear facilities. U.S. embassies are under attack in various countries, while in Beirut, where Saul is now stationed, the CIA gets word that an attack on the homeland is imminent. Meanwhile, back stateside, Carrie is puttering around her garden and teaching English to adult students. She's out of the agency -- really out.

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Over the next 12 weeks, the show "switches a little more into an action thriller genre" series, says Mike Cuesta, who directed last season's much-praised pilot and finale. Cuesta, who grew up in Dix Hills, now divides his time between Huntington Bay and the West Coast.

"But we don't want to lose sight of the best part of the show, which is about these two characters and how they are so like-minded," says Cuesta, who was nominated -- but did not win -- for an Emmy for best drama directing.

Gordon explains it this way: "We're not afraid to change up the pace with some of the good, old-fashioned suspense and action stuff that defines the consequences of Carrie's investigation, but our challenge is getting Carrie and Brody on a collision course, and getting them face-to-face sooner."

And how much longer will Brody play an al-Qaida mole? "Homeland's" brain trust won't pinpoint an end date, but "once the Brody story is over," says Ganza, "we'll have a franchise which is Carrie and Saul chasing the bad guys."

For fans, that's the best possible outcome.

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