TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: 'Homeland' Takes Off, Leaving Clueless Critics in the Dust

Television
by David Chute
October 22, 2013 3:40 PM
5 Comments
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Saul and Carrie, together again Showtime

Some of the people who are watching "Homeland" (which was just renewed by Showtime, along with "Masters of Sex") seem to have little experience watching or reading twisty thrillers, and very little appreciation of the genre's spicy pleasures. The twist revealed at the end of episode four of "Homeland" was a high point for the series, exactly the sort of coup genre fans relish. Commentators who had a problem with it have proved only that they should be watching, and writing about, something else. Maybe a nice sit com. "Trophy "Wife" is supposed to be good.

One guy actually seemed to be saying that showrunner Alex Gansa was lying when he said the producers had this twist in mind for over a year, from before the end of season two. If I was Gansa I'd send this dork a "bite me" card.

The naysayers need a history lesson. The late great mystery and thriller writer Donald Westlake, especially in the books he wrote as Richard Stark about the grimly professional thief Parker, liked to create surprises just from the way he structured his stories. In novels with more than one central character he'd separate his protagonists and allow their plot threads to diverge. For several chapters we'd follow protagonist A, as Westlake/Stark systematically backed him into a corner -- at which point protagonist B would magically reappear to  blast the plot wide open. The narrative would then backtrack to the point of divergence and follow protagonist B forward again to the point of impact. Hugely cool.

"Undermining the believability of what we see" (a sore point with the above sorehead) is a staple tool in the thriller writer's kit, and not only of those on the far end of the noir spectrum, such as Woolrich and Bardin, whose anti-heroes are often unreliable to the point of psychosis. A more mainstream example, Robert Ludlum's novel "The Bourne Identity," though not the film version, employed major efforts of misdirection to convince Bourne himself, and the reader, that the amnesiac fugitive is actually Carlos, the Most Wanted Terrorist of the era in which the book was written. Does that make Ludlum, too, a "cheater"?

"We've taken a degree of pleasure in it," Gansa says. "I was an amateur magician when I was a kid, and for me, the best tricks were the ones where the magician convinces the audience that he's made a mistake – only to prove at the end that he's been ahead of them all along." This is exactly the attitude of the classic thriller trickster.

Perhaps the problem for some writers is that "Homeland" has a tone of seriousness about it, a sense that it's been created to be a more realistic alternative to heavily-plotted predecessors like the "Bourne" films and "24." Or perhaps it's simply become so much the done thing to pile on "Homeland" that the bullying continues even when, finally, after the awkwardness  of season two, it's obviously no longer called for.

The show has made itself unmissable again. (And in case you missed it, read the New Yorker Claire Danes profile here,)



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5 Comments

  • stumblejoe | October 24, 2013 10:50 AMReply

    TV is often like BAD cinema. I turned on Walking Dead and it seemed like horrible propaganda. I was similarly turned off by Breaking Bad, and I wouldn't even watch Homeland. TV is for sad people to help them get through their work week. At best, it could be nothing more than a (very) guilty pleasure.

  • Jake | October 23, 2013 11:05 AMReply

    I'll side with Maureen Ryan and Alan septinwell over your clueless review of Homeland. It's nice to have standards for quality television. You should try it

  • parsyeb | October 22, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    TV is for boring people. I'll be over here with cinema, dealing with formal and philosophical problems. Enjoy your plot twists.

  • Nick | October 22, 2013 9:53 PM

    Oh yes, pieces of work that explore and develop characters over many hours are for boring people and 'cinema' that does it for 90 minutes is pure genius made for fascinating, complicated people. Makes sense.

  • Harley Peyton | October 22, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    What an oddly parochial post. Critics of the twist, including many who do so for a living (such as it is), did not complain because they were somehow immune to the 'spicy pleasures' -- there's a hacktastic descriptive -- of the genre, but rather because they had come to expect more from the show than currently on display. The best twists, as even a film critic well-versed in spicy pleasures should understand, lock in with a kind of happy inevitability when offered. The worst tend to elicit WTF responses and usually with good reason. The problem this time around is twofold. The twist itself seemed a cheap stunt coming from a show as good as this -- and one more suited to, oh, say a show like 24 -- and instead of that pleasant inevitability one was left with distinct memories of specific character actions that made no sense in the new context. (Much has been made of Claire Danes weeping at TV coverage of her plight, etc.)

    Undermining the believability of what we see is indeed a staple of the genre. The problem here? The undermining was offered for its own sake -- hah, a twist you didn't see coming!! -- and got just the reaction, IMO, it deserved.

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