TV on DVD: Homeland

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first ever “DVD on TV” column where we look at a television — either current or long-gone, that we believe you should check out on DVD — whether it be on Hulu, Netflix or maybe we’l even inspire you to buy it at your local retail store.

So preface: Homeland is maybe the best thing on television right now. It is well worth your time, and it provides the kind of soaring, smart, scary, involved water-cooler discussion following viewings that no show since perhaps Lost has hit. I’m thrilled with the first-season DVD.

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And I really, truly kinda wish the show had been cancelled at the end of its first season.

We’ll get back to that. But first–five reasons why I’d like you to watch Homeland. You can thank me later.

First, a little plot synopsis: CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has incredible powers of deduction, and surmises, based on a deep-cover lead, that an American POW has been converted into a sleeper by Al-Qaeda. Her hunches lead her to recently-liberated war hero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a Marine held and tortured for eight years. He’s got all kinds of PTSD, and she’s on anti-psychotic medications for a carefully-hidden bipolar disorder. Basically, we’ve got these two deeply flawed anti-heroes circling one another in a desperate game of cat and mouse.

So, five reasons to watch:

*Thankfully, this isn’t 24.
Homeland is inspired by the dark and gritty Israeli series Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”) — but it shares executive producers with 24 in the form of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Where 24 handled the cultural issues of the War on Terror with all the subtlety of a SCUD to the face, Homeland is that knife between the ribs you barely feel until the blade twists–the surprises of season 1 come out of well-crafted moments you didn’t see coming, instead of massive explosions or political assassinations or the big and loud messes that 24 gave us throughout its tenure.

*Despite what I said before, It isn’t quite LOST.
There are three big mysteries that drive the first season of Homeland, all of which are introduced in episode one. The big one is “Is Nicolas Brody a terrorist?” And anything I say about the other two will spoil you rotten, and I’m not going to do that. This is a show that’s about human beings in impossible situations, and the mysteries, as grand and well-constructed as they are, are the sizzle, not the steak. LOST lost track of that early in its run; the first season of Homeland learns its lesson and keeps the interactions of its cast as the prime focus.

*Speaking of that cast…
Remember Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride? Well, he’s one hell of an actor. Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s CIA mentor Saul Berenson is layered and nuanced, a decent man with a ridiculously hard job that makes less and less sense as his protegee seems to get crazier and crazier. We also need to talk about Morena Baccarin, best know as the Lizard Queen in V and companion-prostitute Inara in Firefly. She busts loose from the confines of sci-fi genre prison here, and is wonderful as the conflicted and pained wife of Brody, who tries to pick up her life with him after eight years of absence and turns into something just this side of Lady MacBeth. And keep an eye on Dana (Morgan Saylor), Brody’s daughter, who transforms from what you think is another “troubled TV teen” into what is perhaps the juiciest and most exhilarating part on the show. Blink and you’ll miss the point where that transformation happens; she’s that good.

*Episode Seven: The Weekend
I don’t know what to say except that this was the episode in which this became a television classic, and an example of what can be done with a program like this. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but you’ll know when you’ll get there. And it has nothing to do with explosions or bombshells (although those may happen, as well), but the sturdy, painful, wonderful human core of show. You’ll be a die-hard convert at the end of this episode, trust me.

*And then there’s Claire Danes and Damian Lewis…
There’s a reason their faces are on the DVDs, people. They’re amazing, and they’ve got the Emmys to proove it. Danes has come a long long way since My So Called Life, and Damian Lewis is astonishing in what is perhaps one of the most detailed, nuanced, and nigh-Shakespearean roles ever played on American television. Their heat, and skill, and passion drive this show. And you can actually feel your pulse quicken when they’re on screen together. It’s something else. And in each and every scene they share, the earth shakes, a little bit.

It’s probably clear that I loved the first season of Homeland; it’s this perfectly constructed story of two dynamos of human drama locked in a game where they both have everything to lose. And dare I say–as much as I’ve enjoyed season two, and will tune in for season three, I wonder what would’ve happened if the artistic powers that be had stood their ground and given us these twelve perfect episodes. Because as good as the follow-up has been, it dilutes a bit of the first season (I’m dancing around spoilers here); I feel the same way about The Sopranos, and Dirty Sexy Money, and a dozen other tv shows that might’ve worked better in hindsight as incredibly well-crafted single-shot seasons. It transfers to film, for many of us, too–I mean, in my head, there’s only two Godfather films, and three Indiana Jones movies.

It’s odd when a part of the story is so great, so solid, so self-contained that its latter chapters are found wanting. And that’s what happened to Homeland, I think.

I’m conflicted. Here’s hoping season three proves me very wrong. Meanwhile, go watch that rare minor miracle of storytelling that is Homeland season one on DVD.