October 31, 2011

Terrorism, 24, and Showtime's Excellent New Series "Homeland"

It's no secret that the good folks over at This LA Life loved the hell out of 24. For 8.5 seasons we got to see terrorist destroyer Jack Bauer save the by any means necessary, and when I say any means necessary I mean crazy torture, wild violence, and a whole lot of self sacrifice. Yet, when the show left the airwaves in 2009 it left partly because our national appetite for terrorist killing had dimmed with the election of Obama and the hope of change. Simply put, Bauer was banished to the Bush era past, the one full of Abu Ghraib torture, color coded attack alerts, and water boarding.

But the war against against terrorism didn't end with an election did it? With Bin Laden taken out in a daring raid, drone strikes continuing overseas, and shady Iranian bombing plots, the world of counter-terrorism is alive and well. So where's Jack Bauer? He's starring in a pseudo spiritual show about a magic child. It's all good though because now we have Showtime's Homeland, which could be the best show about terrorism that I've ever seen.

The core plot line focuses on CIA agent Carrie Matthieson (Claire Danes) as she investigates a terrorist threat to America. She believes a key component of the threat is Nicholas Brodie (Damian Lewis), an American POW who she thinks has gone full "Manchurian Candidate" after being helpt captive in Iraq for 9 years. The show focuses on both her investigation of the threat and Brodie's adjustment to his domestic life after being locked away for so many years.

24 worked because Jack Bauer  was so captivating. He was a terrorist hunter Jesus figure, saving our freedom but paying deep  personal costs for it. It's no surprise then that Homeland, which comes from 24 producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa also features characters that are mentally damaged by the war of terrorism. Both Brodie and Carrie are not hiding from their peers, their jobs require them to be interacting with people on a daily basis, Brodie as a spokesperson for the Marines, and Claire as a lead analyst at the CIA. Internally though they both are seriously screwed up. Carrie is taking medication secretly for some psycho-disorder and we learn she forgets to eat and seemed to have a habit of screwing her superior officers. Brodie can't connect with his wife, has intense nightmares and hallucinations, and has secretly converted to Islam during his captivity, but hasn't told anybody. Everyone is processing the effects of terrorism on this show, which is captivating, because as nation we are doing the same.

And while it has all these deep themes working with it, the whole terrorist hunting plot is just as dope as it was in 24. There are dubious legal maneuvers, a mysterious network of villains, intense surveillance details, and plenty of secret allegiances. Since it's on Showtime the violence is more visceral, the language dirtier, and the themes even darker. Yet, even with all this show still feels realistic, and avoids the action movie violence that permeated 24. I mean, we're five episodes in and the body count is hovering at two! Two! At five episodes into 24 we'd be at at least 15!

As Americans we've always craved media during wartime as a way to understand. We hunger for fictional narratives to be applied them, and Homeland is a perfect example of it.  The opening credits feature audio, video, and photos from notable real life parts of the war against terrorism and features references to real life events, something 24 never really did.

And just how real life counter-terrorism politics have evolved, so has the methods on the show. In the most recent episode, the interrogation of a suspect who had been been snatched up in Pakistan and brought do the US under extraordinary rendition, seemed terrifyingly real. Carrie and her team subjected him to sleep deprivation, made promises about saving his family, and in a very un-24 moment, didn't lay a finger on him. The icing on this cake was Carrie's response to an inquiry if the suspect would be tortured Bauer style, her response: "We don't do that here."

It's a strange feeling because the 24 fan in me expected for Carrie to say that and then promptly go snap some fingers and start getting answers. But the key part of that line is the "here" part. Sure you won't do that "here", but maybe you'll do it somewhere else. Somewhere else that isn't in the news and exists in a gray area of counter-terrorism politics. And that is the area that Homeland thrives in. Leave Bauer and company where they belong, gone but not forgotten, somewhere in our patriotic past.

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