'Homeland' is so over. Everyone pull a cry face
Homeland has been ruined, and even the RTÉ continuity announcer is rubbing it in. This week’s episode of the American anti-terror drama was preceded by a jokey reference to “Carrie’s cry face”. As if it isn’t enough that the series has jumped the shark, the continuity announcer was now cheering the shark on.
The second season has lurched such a distance from the first season, a slowly unfolding thriller built on deep and involving characters, that it is hard to believe they are the same show, made and written by the same people.
Where last year it had the qualities of a mature version of 24, slowed down to a near crawl for a more reflective US, now it pants along behind 24 like an out-of-shape cop. It is filled with ludicrous plot twists that float loose from logic; when its main Arab-terrorist character turned up in the US in a recent episode, Homeland’s way of dealing with it was to get characters to spurt, “How the f*** did that happen?” every time it was mentioned. So the writers were responding to your bafflement with a shrug.
When it is not being ridiculous, it is being dull. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to rewind during an episode because I had zoned out during one of the many uninteresting passages and failed to re-engage in time to catch some major plot point, only to then get annoyed by the dumb nature of that major plot point.
No two things better represent the swift implosion of Homeland into self-parody than Carrie’s cry face and its newly arrived costar, Brody’s phone face. This quirk of Claire Danes’s acting style has become a motif of the show. It begins as a rumble through the chin, before pulling the edges of her mouth towards her shoulders and then surging violently through her face.
It has also become a pop-culture meme, with its own websites and videos. Anne Hathaway did such a devastating skit of it on Saturday Night Live that it’s now impossible to take the real thing seriously. This is the great shame of Homeland: earlier this year Danes won an Emmy for her performance, but already she is reduced to a simple cry face, either dormant or active.
Damian Lewis also won an Emmy for his role as Nicholas Brody, the returned American POW turned terrorist. This season’s script has required long passages in which Lewis must act with nothing more than a phone while pretending to respond to some startling threat or other. Picture a man with a bursting bladder attempting to have a phone conversation while being shown footage of running taps and raging waterfalls, and simultaneously being poked in the tummy with a rainstick. This is Brody’s phone face.
There are many other reasons Homeland has lost its way. For instance, it has stopped painting its characters in anything other than broad strokes of cheap matt paint, most notably in its strange decision to drop the most interesting aspect of Carrie Mathison’s character: she has bipolar disorder and secretly took medication to remain in her CIA job.
How does a drama go from being a complex, charged and expertly paced work to being a plot-shredded gurnathon? The answer seems to be because the writers never knew either their destination or how long it would take them to get there.
Actors are signed up for lengthy contracts of five years or so, without knowing whether they’ll get more than a few episodes, because many US shows must spend their earlier episodes in a limbo between success and cancellation.
Lost is perhaps the greatest example of this, with all those mysteries piled into the early episodes – the hatch, polar bear, miracles – even though the writers had absolutely no idea what they were going to do with them all until they went on a writers’ camp after the first season.
Likewise, Homeland’s writers set off into season one without knowing whether Brody would live or die by the end. Yet they had a nicely contained series, with a strong arc that touched down neatly in that final episode. They could have quit there. But television – and commerce – didn’t let them. Neither, it must be said, will the ratings. They continue to rise.
In this week’s episode there was a cameo from an actor, Chance Kelly, who had previously played a significant role in the Iraq war miniseries Generation Kill (made by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns).
That did something quite rare in US terms: it made seven episodes and got out. It wasn’t cancelled. It didn’t run out of ideas. Instead, it set out to make a single season and didn’t change its mind halfway through or spin off into Generation Kill: Afghanistan.
If Homeland had ended after one season, and lived on in box sets and repeats only, it would have been near perfect. Instead it has developed into a cautionary tale about a show that has outlived its idea. It may have its ratings, but when it ends this week I’ll be one of the viewers pulling a cry face for all the wrong reasons.