The 8 Ball 09.23.13: Top 8 Things Homeland Needs to Fix in Season Three
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 09.24.2013
From ending Nicholas Brody's storyline and easing up on the emulation of 24 to pulling the plug on the Brody/Carrie romance, making the C.I.A. smarter and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas breaks down the top 8 things Homeland needs to fix in season three!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Things Homeland Needs to Fix in Season Three
Welcome back to the 8 Ball, ladies and gentlemen! September TV month is almost finished but we still have a couple weeks to go! This coming Sunday we have two major events, as Breaking Bad finishes up its five year run and Showtime's Homeland kicks off its third season. (I will probably cover Breaking Bad next week). Homeland is a fantastic show that features some of the best acting on premium cable; it's an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller that from the first season had fans wildly guessing at what might be coming. As great as it is, there are some (including me) who felt like the show dropped a bit in quality in season two. I want to be clear here: I still love the show and even a problematic Homeland is better than most shows on TV. But with season three about to begin, I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at the some of the things I think the series needs to tweak in order to keep the show shooting straight and veering in the right direction.
Caveat: The criteria for this list was simple: things that I think Homeland has a few struggles with that it needs to change up in order to get back to being a brilliant show. Much like my Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Steps to Success" 8 Ball a few weeks back, this is a little different from my usual 8-Ball as it's not just a list of pre-defined movies, characters, episodes, et cetera. As such, we're going without honorable mentions for a week.
#8: Morally Gray Doesn't Mean Acting Good/Evil/Good/Evil
One of the things you hear most often about Homeland is that it does a great job with morally gray characters, and in the first season that was definitely true. Brody was a great conflicted villain in season one; he was a man charged with a horrific task who we had grown to feel sympathy for and thanks to the writing and Damian Lewis' stellar performance, we didn't view him as a villain per se even though he was inches away from blowing up a room full of high-ranking political leaders in a suicide bombing plan. Similarly we had reasons to potentially, if not feel sympathetic for, at least understand that Abu Nazir wasn't just an ideologue; he had very personal reasons for his hatred of the United States and it made him a more interesting character than just some Bin Ladin-esque caricature who gave orders while surrounded by his umpteen wives.
Unfortunately that fell apart a bit in season two as the writers seemed to decide that they should amp things up; that spun Nadir into a full mustache-twirling villain and Brody in particular into a man for whom "morally conflicted" was defined as doing terrible things followed by good things as if they were trying to run back and forth from one end of a see-saw to the other in order to keep the balance in the middle. Brody killed the tailor in "State of Independence" and was outed to Carrie as a legit terrorist, but then we see his marital problems in the next episode and are supposed to feel bad for him. He kills Walden in "Broken Hearts" but then see him cry over the death of Abu Nazir, making him human again. The flip-flopping is part of the show's dedication to extremes, but it gets tired. This is the same thing that killed Sylar's appeal as a character in Heroes and it didn't ruin Brody (again, thanks to Lewis), but it surely damaged him.
#7: This Is a Spy Thriller, Not a Romantic Comedy
Did anyone start watching Homeland because they wanted to see the Romeo & Juliet romance between a C.I.A. agent and a suspected terrorist? Raise your hand if you did. I suspect that very few people (if any) did so. Homeland drew most of its viewers in because it was an enthralling, taut thriller about the C.I.A. in the modern era, doing battle against a domestic terrorist who was working with a foreign group for compelling reasons. We wanted to see how the cat-and-mouse game between Carrie and Brody was going to play itself out, especially when Brody was a national hero and Carrie was a C.I.A. agent whose career and reputation were on the rocks. That's a compelling set-up, and it's often been played out beautifully. But I swear to all the gods, the first time I groaned at this show was when Carrie showed up in season one at Brody's support group meeting in "Semper I" because it was like I could see everything that was coming. You just knew that she was going to try to get close to him and they would get involved and she would get compromised and so on. It was broadcasted in so many ways that I hoped against hope, but secretly knew.
And don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that they haven't been able to get some good moments out of this dynamic. But the Carrie/Brody relationship in many ways is the core of the problems of this show. It's as if the writers decided "We know that people are going to be drawn in by all these other things, but we need woman viewers to. Let's make them fall in love!" And frankly, that's insulting to female viewers because I know many who watch the show and like the Brody/Carrie relationship even less than I do. Carrie is a fascinating character and Brody is as well. But then together (and this is not because of any lack of chemistry on Danes' and Lewis' part) and my interest in the show starts to tailor off. This season is their chance to move away from that with Brody on the run and Carrie dealing with the aftermath of the bombing; let's see that happen.
#6: Smarten Up the US Intelligence Community
You know, it seems to be a running trend in TV action-thrillers that law enforcement, particularly federal law enforcement, is increasingly dumb. The Following, Hannibal, even shows like The Killing and Dexter stretched credibility several times, and new series Sleepy Hollow, while a hell of a lot of goofy supernatural fun, is clearly trying to leap ahead of the pack based on the premiere. While The Following is probably leading the pack right now, Homeland is right on its heels. Where to even begin? Let's start with the poor, departed David Estes, who is arguably the dumbest high-level C.I.A. agent that we've ever seen in any show. And again (I feel like I need to keep saying it), this is not a patch on the actor; David Harewood did a stellar job. But how many times are we supposed to excuse the fact that he allowed a bipolar woman off her meds to remain a vital part of a C.I.A. op of critical national importance? And that's not even including the fact that he didn't just arrest Brody for, you know, nearly committing an act of massive terrorism on American soil and instead stood by as he was elected to the US House of Representatives. Estes is supposed to be adversarial to Carrie at times but they go too far in making him permissive so that the plot can continue.
And let's just talk about Carrie. I'm not going to slam Carrie's actions, because we already covered her most egregious move as an agent with the romance nonsense. But her placement as a CIA operative is the reason for all of the idiocy around her; it often feels like the writers think they need to dumb everyone else down so that Carrie can be the brilliant one. And that would be fine if she wasn't a mess as it was, which means that the bar is lowered and the others need to be pushed even further down. And that's not even getting to the ridiculous level of access that Brody has in the Vice President's house in the episode where Walden dies. Making the C.I.A. and other acronymed organizations smarter would make this show far more enjoyable and eliminate a lot of problems.
#5: Stop Trying to be 24
There was a show back in the '00s that really changed the game of what was capable in terms of action-thrillers on TV. It had an interesting gimmick for a TV show of being in "real time" but what really drew people in was how well it blended tension and action into a sort of high-concept, explody, bullets-flying project that wasn't too far off from what we've seen in movies. As I'm sure you know, it was called 24. And I loved 24; I loved the tone of the show and the way that it would wildly veer from one end of possibility to the other with plenty of time for shootouts, fistfights, helicopter chases and so on. However, that era is over and we've moved past it to some degree. The Bourne franchise has lost its luster a bit, the Bond films have become more serious and moody affairs and the days of Enemy of the State have fallen to make way for films that are more thought-provoking like Zero Dark Thirty.
Homeland started off in the newer light of that kind of action thriller, and for the entire first season (and the first part of the second) it seemed to be moving strongly in that area. Unfortunately, the showrunners felt like they had to make it more exciting and we had incidents like explosives holed up in Bassel's shop, where Quinn shows up only to have the terrorists burst in and shoot everyone. Why? Because it's a sudden twist and explosion of violence. And that's not the only incident where 24-itis has infected the show; there is also Carrie's capture by Abu Nazir, the whole sting operation with Roya the journalist and her camera crew that are attempting to blow up a bunch of soldiers and then of course the detonation of the Langley building in the finale...Nazir's vengeance from beyond the grave. I'm not saying that Homeland shouldn't have action in it; far from it. But you can do action and build tension without needing to make the show look like an action series. I mean seriously, there were times I practically expected Carrie to start shouting "Dammit, Chloe!" If they tone down this stuff just a little bit, it would do worlds of good.
#4: Take Focus Off Jessica and the Kids
If there is one criticism I see consistently about this show...okay, it's not this one. It's one we'll get into in about, oh...three rankings. But right behind it is the way that the show distracts itself with Brody's family. Morena Baccarin and Morgan Saylor in particular should be commended for their work as Jessica and Dana, respectively. Baccarin's Emmy nomination was well-deserved and Saylor's done a lot with just a little to work with. That being said, there is a tendency for the writers to feel the need to saddle these characters with increasingly tiresome plots just in order to give them screen time. These characters worked wonderfully when they were reacting to Brody's return home after being thought dead; I thought that Dana's dynamic with her father was one of the most intriguing things of season one and Jessica's actions were thoroughly understandable. But in season two we were given a go-nowhere plotline with Dana and Walden's son in the whole "I killed someone with my car, what do we do?" thing and Jessica's job was basically just to be the woman constantly getting angry at Brody for keeping her very obviously in the dark on things. As good as they did in those roles, it did distract from the main thrust of the storyline.
Season three gives them the chance to correct all this, and I'm concerned that they won't. Brody is on the run, his relationship with Jessica is basically done. And yet Baccarin, Saylor and Jackson Pace are still regular characters, meaning that they will be in a majority of (if not all) the episodes this season. The only way I can see that happening is if they shoehorn some new plotline in order to keep the camera on them, and that's not a good idea. It's okay when a character's story arc is done to write them out. I know that Baccarin is an award magnet, but it's not a good enough reason to force the character to stay around if it doesn't make sense. Stories should always drive the cast and not the other way around; as much as I enjoy the actors it's time to let them fade away because their importance to the plot is at an end.
#3: Progress Carrie's Character
I love Carrie Matheson as a character. She's a trope to be sure, but she's a brilliantly-played trope; a brilliant individual who is incredibly good at her job but held back by flaws that make her difficult to deal with. We've seen this character many a time; a lot of the time they fall under the "brilliant jerk" category as exemplified by Gregory House, both current TV versions of Sherlock Holmes, Bones Brennen and such. Carrie is a much more seriously damaged person but it's portrayed well and throughout much of the season it makes the things that she does far more understandable. Why she's still allowed to be an agent with that drawback...well, we already covered that.
Here's the problem though; the writers have not allowed Carrie to move forward as a character. She is, at her core, the exact same character that she was at the beginning of the series, except now she has it bad for Brody. There was a moment at the end of season one where we thought that she might be making some serious progression as she was willing to accept help for her issues, and that was shown again in the season two premiere. Unfortunately by the end of that episode she was back to being Carrie Matheson: Crazy C.I.A. Chick. One of the hallmarks of television is that it allows you to see a longer arc of character progression and that progression can be shown in a more realistic way than a two hour movie can provide. This is why it's so maddening that Claire Danes basically has to portray the same character for two seasons now, with the difference being slight variations in how she cries, or the way she flips out. Carrie is one of the most interesting female characters on TV, but the only way she's going to stay that way is to progress and grow.
#2: End the Brody Storyline
Damien Lewis is, without a doubt, the breakout star of Homeland. Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin are all great but they had a certain amount of visibility; Lewis had a smaller factor of star power, mostly from Band of Brothers. And he took the world by storm with his stellar work in the first and even second season. While Carrie is the primary protagonist it is Brody's conflicted morality that really drew us in and made us fascinated with the show. It is a credit to the writers of the first season and Lewis' acting that the man came off as sympathetic as he did and right up to the pivotal moment in the season finale, I had no idea if he was going to push the damn button on his suicide vest or not. Even season two, which was a bit bumpier of a ride as we've discussed, saw Brody navigating tricky waters and consistently being the most compelling part of the show.
That being said, this storyline can only go on for so much longer. Brody is a crucial part of this show, but at some point the writers need to make a decision; they drop Brody or they drop the C.I.A. Clearly, the right move would be Brody because there are more characters that we are invested in on the other side, and switching to Brody would be a reboot. We can't keep watching the C.I.A. chase him down while the writers try to keep us guessing whether Brody's in on the whole thing or just an innocent person at this point. Many characters on shows have lasted long past their expiration date because the writers are enamored of the actor or character and the more they feel forced into situations just to give them further episodes, the more the shows start to fall apart. Heroes was a great example of that with several characters; it showed how difficult it was to follow multiple sides of a storyline without losing focus. Lost was another show that held onto certain characters too long and it suffered too. It would be a risky move but a gutsy and bold creative choice--and a sensical one--to resolve Brody's run on the show, one way or another, in a way that allows them to move onto other storylines. It would revitalize the series.
#1: Give Our Credibility Bone a Break
You see that picture up there, directly above these words? That picture shows the Vice President of the United States and a man who the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Department knows to be a man that was in league with one of the most wanted terrorists in the country hanging out together. And not just that; the man was allowed to be made a United States Congressman. I almost feel like I don't have to explain why this show lacks in narrative credibility sometimes just based on that. But then let's be honest; we don't watch Homeland because we want pure realism. We don't watch any TV show (including reality television) for realism. We watch to be entertained by outlandishness that could never happen to us; a zombie plague, outlaw motorcycle drug runners, a wacky band of community college misfits, a hooded vigilante who stops criminals in a high-tech city with a bow and arrow, et al. (Insert the premise for your favorite show here. I promise, it's not that realistic.)
And that's why Homeland gets a pass a lot of the time; it's not realistic because entertainment is not supposed to be reality. I don't care that Nazir and Brody's Blackberries shouldn't be able to do a video conference the way they did, or that Jessica should have heard Brody killing Bassel over the phone. These are goofy but they're details. Worse are the things that are the culmination of all these other selections on this list. Carrie still being allowed to be involved in the situation. Law enforcement failing to properly check Brody's car before it is driving within blast radius distance of Langley. Character arcs that cause whiplash (see: Jessica conveniently forgetting after about thirty seconds that Brody admitted to her that he killed Tom Walker; Brody turning back and forth on a dime; Quinn defending Carrie in the finale with "I have never seen a better intelligence officer"). This show doesn't just go off the rails; it flies off the rails in several moments. And that's fine to a degree, but too much is too much. It's time to let reality snap back a bit and use season three to even things out, because the show goes from the "great" that it is (already a drop from "fantastic") into a downward spiral that ends very poorly for all involved.
And just to get you hyped for the show, here is the trailer for season three, which premieres on Sunday at 9 PM on Showtime! Check it out below:
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season:Season Thirteen (1975) Episodes Watched: 621 Last Serial Completed:The Android Invasion - The Doctor and Sarah find themselves in the English village of Devesham near a Space Defence Station. The village seems deserted, the telephones don't work, calendars are stuck on the same date and white-suited figures are wandering about aimlessly. Who are the Kraals and what are their plans for Earth? Surviving Episodes Remaining: 20
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.