October 2, 2012

The Terrorist At Home: Why Homeland Praise Is Misplaced

"Homeland," returned to the airwaves with the vengeance on Sunday night. Now sporting a host of well deserved Emmy trophies for stars Damian Lewis, Claire Danes, and of course the top prize for best drama, and based off the massive ratings increase, everyone is hooked again. Understandably so, it's a fantastically thrilling piece of entertainment. And yet despite it's golden hardware and ripped from the headlines plots, it still resides in the shadow of the big daddy terrorism show of the 20th century - "24." Coming from Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa, the same creator's of the seminal real-time thriller, "Homeland" is billed as the more liberal, thoughtful, interesting follow up to the Jack Bauer power hour. As the New Yorker put it, "Homeland" is the "antidote to 24."
“24” was also a carrier for some terrible ideas, among them the notion that torture is the best and only way to get information; that Muslim faith and terrorist aims overlap by definition.

Whaaaaat? Between the Emmy wins, the prestige that cable brings, and decreased dependence on "24" famous torture scenes, everyone seems to be looking past all extreme right wing paranoia that, just like Sgt. Brody laying in wait in our government, has infiltrated this show. First things first, "Homeland" like "24" features Islamic terrorists hell-bent on destroying the United States. The man behind this jihad is Abu Nazir, our Bin-Laden substitute, a terrorist puppet master who has his paws in EVERYTHING around the world. As Sean T. Collins points out in his great write up on the show in Rolling Stone, here is Nazir's  organization so far:

  • A fully trained Marine sniper
  • A second fully trained Marine sniper, partner of the first one no less, presumed dead and smuggled back into the United States to live totally off the grid
  • Enough crowbar-wielding goons to successfully kidnap the first fully trained Marine sniper out of a supermarket parking lot
  • A college professor
  • The college professor's all-American daughter-of-an-oil-exec wife
  • Enough bomb-making, machine-gun-wielding agents across the Midwest to booby-trap a safehouse and go full ending-of-Scarface on a motel room where the college professor and his wife were hiding
  • A Saudi diplomat with full immunity and extensive goon access
  • A Saudi prince who may not be on the payroll per se but doesn't mind hugging the world's most wanted man
  • The Saudi prince's right-hand man, who takes breaks from his main gig as the prince's pimp to tap into an extensive network of jewelry fences, off-the-books money managers and limo-driving hitmen
  • A Gettysburg-based suicide-vest tailor
  • A reporter powerful enough to get high-ranking CIA officials to drop everything and run to meet her on demand
  • And last but not least, a freaking mole inside the CIA capable of tipping off surveillance targets, triggering suicide bombings and stealing the combinations to hidden office safes.
  • I didn't have a problem with these larger than life villains in "24," because the whole show was preposterous, but in "Homeland," having a villain like that is irresponsible. Why? Because "Homeland," deals with issues like drone strikes, Iran-Israel relations, CIA legalities, and Brodie's Islamic faith so well, it's disappointing that they opt for the cartoonish villain. "24" never dealt with issues like that, it was too busy defusing bombs and kicking ass. But having the shadowy terrorist with the turban lurking in the background pulling the strings in "Homeland" is inconsistent with the rest of the dieas of the show, and the whole thing suffers.

    But if Abu Nazir is the mastermind who lurks (mostly) overseas, Sgt. Brodie is his man on the ground in the U.S.A. Since the show first began, the central premise always reminded me of season four of "24," where your normal suburban neighbor is actually a bloodthirsty terrorist. In that season the Araz family including their teenage son actively planned terrorist attacks, tried to kill Jack Bauer, and of course murdered the all American teenage girl next door because she knew too much. This central concept of the "terrorist next door" was revisited again in season six with Ahmed Amar (played by Kal Penn of all people.) It is an effective story device that plays on our timeless fears of enemy infiltration, and it's no wonder that "Homeland" uses it as well, it's just slightly ironic that when "24" showed terrorists next door it was controversial and required Fox to release disclaimers before episodes, but when "Homeland" shows Islamic terrorists next door and infiltrating our government, it doesn't matter if the whole thing is Michelle Bachman inspired insanity, it's just gripping television.

    "Homeland" is great television (even President Obama loves it), yet the path ahead for it is not easy. So far it's been more engaging politically than "24," but we'll see how long that lasts with more and more sleeper terrorists emerging from the woodwork. Things like that make realize that the reason we are flipping for it is because it's just "24" in different packaging.

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