Showtime’s international thriller Homeland, from 24 producer Howard Gordon premieres tonight. The main attractions include Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin in a tense story about a recovered American prisoner of war suspected of being a planted  Al-Qaeda operative. So, is Homeland worth cable viewers’ time? Read on to find out.

Homeland begins months before the story proper, when CIA field agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, Terminator 3) is trying to commute the death sentence of a terrorist informant in Baghdad. The man has information on an imminent attack by fictional extremist leader Abu Nazir, and when the deputy director (David Harewood) refuses to interfere with the Iraqi justice system, she sneaks into the prison to hear his intel. Before Mathison is arrested and deported, the prisoner tells her a single sentence: “An American prisoner of war has been turned.”

Flash forward ten months. Working on CIA intelligence, an American special ops team takes down a terrorist cell and recovers Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, Band of Brothers), a Marine who has been missing and presumed dead since the beginning of the Iraq war. Mathison, demoted to an analyst after creating an international incident, is instantly suspicious.

Brody is flown back to the United States and given a hero’s welcome, showered with adulation from politicians, military top brass and the media. After the better part of a decade spent in captivity, Brody is ill-equipped for the attention, throwing up on the plane, flinching at camera flashes and displaying nervous ticks. When he’s re-united with his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin, Firefly) and their two children, his son can’t even recognize his father.

Working against the cautious instructions of her manager Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin, Criminal Minds), Mathison installs cameras and wiretaps into the Brody home, hoping to catch the Marine when his handlers make contact. Her continual failure to link Brody with Abu Nazir takes a toll on her already fragile mental state. When an associate confronts Mathison, she admits to psychological problems (probably a form of bipolar disorder) and that she’s been taking anti-psychotics heavily.

Brody visits the wife of his partner who died in captivity and lies to her about his experiences. Mathison continues to fail in her intelligence gathering, and after being caught red-handed by Berenson, tries and fails to seduce him. Just before she’s revealed to the CIA, she identifies what may be a coded message sent by Brody through television news cameras. The audience learns that Brody savagely beat and possibly killed his partner while in captivity – at the direction of Abu Nazir.

Homeland is to 24 and other terrorism thrillers what The Killing is to CSI. The show unfolds in a slow, thoughtful and deliberate fashion, allowing the audience access to the inner lives of Mathison, Brody and his family. Those looking for a repeat of Jack Bauer’s breathless chases and gunfights will be disappointed, but for viewers with patience and an appreciation for character development, Homeland is an unexpected treat.

For most of the pilot, the audience is left wondering who to root for. Brody is an undeniably tragic figure, a man whose life has been destroyed by America’s enemies. Whether or not he’s a sleeper agent, the experiences he lived through show in his interactions with other people, most notably his family. The scene in the airport when Brody and his wife meet for the first time is achingly tense, displaying love, grief, loss, joy and awe rapidly and with a skill that’s a major credit to both Lewis and Baccarin. Even the child actors playing the Brody’s children do well – a rare sight on television.

Conversely we have Agent Mathison, a ruthless and indefatigable pursuer who is convinced of Brody’s intentions. She breaks her superiors’ trust and privacy laws with reckless abandon, sparing absolutely nothing in her pursuit of the truth. Every time Brody shows his humanity and fragility to the audience, Mathison is there watching and criticizing, reminding us that she’s ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice. Her personal and professional habits paint her as a reckless and destructive person; she’d be a difficult protagonist to get behind even if she wasn’t hounding a scarred and decorated veteran. These make for a fascinating character who’s unpredictable in a number of ways.

Unfortunately there isn’t much space for Mandy Patinkin to shine in the pilot. The experienced actor is a favorite of mine, and seeing him relegated to a subdued middleman role is frustrating. On the flip side, fans of Morena Baccarin will finally be able to see her shine in a part with subtlety and grace, and she absolutely rises to the occasion. Her portrayal of a wife caught between lives is extremely sympathetic.

The tension displayed throughout Homeland‘s first episode keeps the audience keyed in, mercifully eschewing the jittery shaky-cam shots that seem to permeate the genre. Writing is tight without being preachy – the characters speak and act like real people, reacting to a real situation. Homeland‘s pacing is downright expert, slowing to take in big dramatic moments, then speeding up through well-handled plot advancement.

If there’s one low point in the pilot, it’s an over-reliance on graphic sexuality. The short, unflattering scenes seem out of place surrounded by fifty minutes of subtle drama. Of course, I’m sure some viewers will want to see what’s on display, and at least one scene illustrates an important part of the Brody character.

Homeland is not your typical CIA thriller. Those looking for a Bourne-esque action ride or scripted versions of their Modern Warfare experiences should look elsewhere. But for viewers with the patience to follow a well-told story with a couple of deep leads and a believable, interesting world, the show delivers in a big way. If you’ve enjoyed Justified or The Killing, be sure to give the premiere a try.

Homeland airs Sunday nights at 10PM on Showtime, right after Dexter.

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