THE SHOW "Homeland"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A man is twisting wires as he concocts what appears to be a homemade bomb, in the opening seconds Sunday. Another jihadist? But . . . aah, no, that would be CIA Black ops specialist Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). Nonetheless, the "is he a good guy or bad guy?" question is (and should be) planted firmly in your mind as the third season gets underway.

After the attack on Langley left 219 dead, and the CIA virtually decapitated Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is now the acting (and reluctant) head of the agency. Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) has vanished, but the assumption that he is the mastermind of the bombing is prevalent. Saul has to make a retaliatory move -- but on whom? Meanwhile, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has effectively been handed a burn notice a second time, and -- with exquisitely bad timing -- is off her meds. Brody's family -- Dana (Morgan Saylor) in particular -- are also rummaging through the wreckage of their lives.

MY SAY Much was wrong with "Homeland's" second season, up to and including the sense -- or my sense anyway -- that Jerry Bruckheimer had hijacked the production. A drama that had one of the most electrifying starts in modern TV history only a year earlier lumbered along until such times that it lurched along -- wildly, leaving whatever remnant of plausibility in the dust.

Turns out Carrie didn't lose her mind last season, but her show did. "Homeland" needed to take a deep breath, count its blessings, and figure out how many blessings were left. Sunday night indicates that plenty are. Foremost, getting Brody off-screen turns out to be an inspired move (he'll be back this season, but producers politely decline to say when). In his absence, there's a new world order, or disorder, with a lot of people left to assemble the pieces, including Saul, Carrie, and most of all, Dana. Some fans might get annoyed by Saylor's scenes in the first couple of episodes -- not enough action! -- but I found them to be some of the best work she has done here. They ground a series that desperately needed to be grounded. Carrie, without the aid of her jagged little pills, is in a disoriented place as well. Who's the good guy, the bad? She hasn't a clue.

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BOTTOM LINE Strong start. (Here's hoping it stays that way.)

GRADE A-