‘Homeland’: Thrilling TV that makes you think

Thank you, Homeland.

Because of this spectacular series on Showtime, I don’t feel quite so foolish about that weak moment when the Xfinity guy on the phone talked me into buying a bunch of premium channels.

Homeland, which just ended its first season, is about the “war on terror.” But it delves into that world of shadows and hunches with a flair for nuance never dreamed of in 24 or any movie I’ve seen on the topic.

The series’ first season was a finely wrought puzzle that kept you guessing and reconsidering your assumptions right up to the stunning final episode.

Homeland presents a complicated dance of suspicion, obsession and attraction between two main characters: a CIA agent who is definitely wound a little too tight, played by Claire Danes, and a U.S. Marine recently released from years of captivity in Iraq.

Danes’ character suspects the Marine of being a terrorist plant who’d been turned by al-Qaeda during his time as a hostage. Damian Lewis plays the Marine with a barely restrained intensity that keeps you flip-flopping: Is he really a mole, or just a damaged soul struggling with re-entry to normal life?

Don’t even bother holding a vote for the acting Emmys. Just pack the statues up now and deliver them now to Danes and Lewis. (The amazing beard sprouting on Mandy Patinkin’s chin, as he plays Danes’ exasperated CIA section chief, deserves some special prize of its own.)

Knowing Homeland had been green-lighted for a second season, my wife and I settled in for the Season 1 finale. With 30 minutes, we saw no way the scriptwriters could wrap things up to our satisfaction while still setting up a Season 2.

We were wrong. They pulled it off, with a plot twist of devilish subtlety.

Ten years after 9/11, I find that our country has not done very well at sorting through the twisted tangle of emotions, and the rubble of old assumptions, that awful day produced. We’ve settled for bromides, spasms of revenge, and “worry-bead” policies that soothe anxiety while achieving little.

Homeland never settles for the cheap answer. It forces us to stare into the shadows and fog, and admit we can’t really decipher all that’s going on, can’t always confidently parse good and evil. Homeland did more to make me ponder the dilemmas of 9/11 than any political speech I’ve heard in the last 10 years.

That’s what art can do that mere rhetoric can’t. And Homeland is art. It is TV at its best, a sweeping narrative as seductive and politically fraught as a Dickens novel.

My advice for the new year: Find your way to Homeland.

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