The distinctive storytelling pleasures of 'Homeland'

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Image Credit: Kent Smith/Showtime

More and more frequently, when I ask friends, acquaintances, and strangers what they’re watching and enjoying on TV the most, the response is “Homeland.” And it’s often phrased in a surprised tone, as in, “You know, I didn’t think it would, but I’m really hooked on Homeland. I can’t believe… ” and then he or she will go on to describe some plot point that strikes this person as surprising.

One thing this response means is that people are marveling at how much plot development the show is giving us so early on in its second season. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who watches Homeland is sophisticated about the ways television usually doles out information, characterization, and revelations. Which is to say: more slowly than the way Homeland does it. Viewers know that, in the vast majority of other cable and network dramas, producers try to keep their audiences coming back by adding maybe one new detail per episode, dangling a new clue, often near or just after the climax of an hour.

The element that viewers are really getting off on is fulfillment: Homeland is consciously experimenting with the way narratives play out during a TV season. Yes, you’re caught up in the story, in the characters; but you’re also (often subconsciously) pleasured by receiving a treat you didn’t expect: The resolution to a plot that was so carefully set up, you never expected it to be brought to the fore, solved, or exploded this early on in the season. Thus when, last week, Saul played Carrie the video of Brody admitting he had become sympathetic to his terrorist captors, her cry, “I was right!,” coming on the heels of her despairingly half-hearted suicide attempt, was the kind of moment hundreds of other shows might have tucked in its back pocket to use as a mid-season cliffhanger, or even a season-ender.

Similarly, the season two premiere abruptly dispatched with a thread that had been so carefully woven into the first season — Brody’s attempt to keep his devotion to Islam a secret, known only in the West by his daughter and us — that the surprise of Dana’s blurted admission at school followed by wife Jessica’s shocked fury struck many viewers with a force similar to what Jessica was supposed to be feeling.

Homeland isn’t really operating on the same playing field as Lost‘s plot twists or The Good Wife‘s layered domestic drama, or Fringe‘s cliffhangers. I am of course not putting any of these shows down in saying this, but rather calling attention to the fact that “plot twists” and “cliffhangers” have become, for Homeland, almost meaningless terms, or rather beside the point.

The entire series is a twist on what an hour-long drama usually does over the course of 12 or 24 episodes. Thus it dispenses its entertainment value on two levels simultaneously: On the surface, with its excellent acting, dialogue, and plotting; and — running beneath the show like electrical current — its jolting, disruptive storytelling, which tricks you in the best way: “This is what we’re building to,” one hour says implicitly. “Nope — hah! — this is where we’re going!” “Here, why wait? This is what happens this guy/this girl/this intel!”

Sure, some cable shows will do something surprising to a greater degree than a network show. Boardwalk Empire is more likely to abruptly kill off a supporting character than, say, Bones. But Boardwalk also maintains a pace, when you look at the whole arc of its season, that sometimes seems as slow as watching the lacquer dry on Nucky Thompson’s hair. In the latter case, the pace is meant to signify the immense import of every phrase, gesture, and sap to the head.

By contrast, Homeland is in no way a fussily filmed series. Indeed, care seems to be taken to make Homeland seem filmed on the fly, as though the cameras can barely keep up with what lead Carrie or Saul are following, what task Brody needs to accomplish to either gather some intelligence, or hide it. The haste conveyed by the method is, of course, artful in itself, a clever way to convey action. You could say that this is a technique producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon learned during their time on 24, but too many times in its weaker story-lines, 24 really did seem as though it was being cut and pasted as the staff went along, and they were counting on the audience to fill in the idea that, oh, this is meant to be fast-paced suspense. Homeland never feels as though there’s a moment in it that hasn’t been thought through behind the scenes, which leaves the people onscreen free to be as manic or as intense as they need to be. And which leaves its audience at once tense and purring with satisfaction.

UPDATE AND SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS WEEK’S EPISODE: 

First: Yay, Virgil is back! Second: See what I mean? Carrie saying, “I loved you,” and Brody being seized at the end of this week’s episode – more examples of the way this series cuts to the chase faster than the chases on many other shows.

Subject for further discussion/another post: The introduction of Peter Quinn, who inspired the deathless Carrie line, “You’re pretty mouthy for an analyst” – look who’s talkin’!

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Homeland recap: Carrie, scorned

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