Saturday, April 21, 2018

How Homeland Broke Bad

Homeland Deserves the Snark

There used to be a great site called "Television Without Pity," whose motto was "spare the snark, spoil the networks." Unfortunately, it is no longer around. Showtime's prestige drama Homeland is one of the most snark-worthy series to ever be called great. There are a couple of SPOILERS ahead if watching Homeland is on your to-do list. This is seven seasons of snark in one article.

We're in the final stretch of the penultimate season. Hints that Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) is not going to survive for a spinoff are dropping as thick as tears from one of her "bipolar" crying jags. But don't worry, little Franny. Mommy will be coming back to traumatize you some more after all. Homeland will apparently end after next season (season eight).

Homeland's first season probably deserved awards. The story of a brilliant, but troubled CIA agent seemed like a plausible peek into the forbidden world of CIA operations. The moral ambiguity of the War on Terror was timely, the story was told well, and the acting was top notch.

However, the next six seasons were plagued with bad decisions and sloppy writing.

Pity Poor Dana and String Theory

Poor Morgan Saylor, a fine young actress, was a victim of one of those bad decisions. She played sullen Brody teenage daughter "Dana." The luckless girl got as much fan hate as Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn did as Walter White's wife. Apparently, the showrunners thought viewers who were hooked by the spy versus terrorist angle would welcome a hefty subplot of teenage angst.

Sloppy writing relied on tropes and left plot holes big enough to fly a squadron of Predator drones through.

Carrie solves a puzzle by covering the walls of her house with - are you ready? - pictures and text connected by yarn! Now, there's nothing wrong with a few tropes. But who doesn't roll their eyes at the String Theory trope nowadays? Especially when combined with the Room Full of Crazy trope? (Links are to the entertaining and educational TV Tropes site.)

Besides the relentless trope-a-thon, there is the sloppy writing,

In one episode, the only person with the evidence to show the Russians are subverting our democracy (!) is in a hospital. Lucky for the Russians, neither the United States government nor extra-governmental operatives (Homeland frequently leaves this unclear) could afford the overtime for anyone to guard him. ("Request denied. Not even the Russians would stoop to murdering someone in the ICU.")

The trick to suspension of disbelief is not letting your audience realize you're relying on it until the day after. You don't want them yelling at their screens.

You can also be too timely. And too twisted.

Info Wars, Ruby Ridge and Civil War II

A couple of seasons featured a conspiracy-mongering right-wing internet celebrity. At first the Bear thought "Mark Steyn" from the accent (not the dialogue), but the actor eventually dialed it in and became Alex Jones / Glenn Beck overdosed on methylphenidate.

However, nothing can be that simple on Homeland.

You see, he really has a sprawling bunker generating fake social media posts. No, wait. It's not really him, he's a catspaw of the Russians. But hang on. He's not really crazy. He risks his life to broadcast his show while on the run, but confesses he's appealing to "the lunatic fringe." However, his wacky conspiracy theories are right! But, he's still a fraud and a menace. And the Russians.

Complex or merely confusing?

Then the writers give us a docudrama mashup of Ruby Ridge and Waco as the United States teeters on the brink of Civil War II.

We're a long way from season one's plausible portrayal of the CIA.

However, even the worst seasons are just watchable enough. The Bear and other viewers were strung along like the handler for a double agent who is fed just enough real intel - "chicken feed" - to get him to swallow the disinformation. Sure, none of us ever want to see Claire Danes' face again, but there was enough sporadic excellent TV to keep us tuning in. And the weary and conflicted Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride) and his awesome beard, is an understated performance that balances Claire Danes' histrionics.

(Bear knows she's largely at the mercy of writers and directors, but let's just say her career will not be remembered for her portrayal of Temple Grandin.)

From Mere Bad TV to Offensive

But there are two things that reduce Homeland from bad TV to offensive: its close-to-the-bone-ripped-from-today's-headlines "realism," and its treatment of Carrie's bipolar disorder.

It may be hard to believe over the Homeland hype, but the Fox series 24 was a much more consistent Emmy-winner. Homeland was never anything more than 24 with pretensions. Yet, unlike 24, which was a guilty pleasure because of its wretched excess, Homeland was sold as a prestige drama about real-world issues.

"Happy Birthday Dear Drone Queen"

The Bear never had a window into covert operations. He did hold a Top Secret crypto clearance, but understands that watching someone wearing headphones writing number sequences does not make compelling TV. Audiences prefer explosions and shootouts, or at least a good Power Point presentation. (A senator asks what "UI" under his picture means; the answer is "useful idiot." The writing isn't always bad.)

The problem is, Homeland does not use a fictional setting like U.N.C.L.E. or the CTU. Exploiting the CIA, the White House and current events becomes squirmy-making after a while. Real Americans are still downrange, still dying. It sometimes feels like a never-made 1944 WWII movie about the moral ambiguity of fighting Nazis. The Bear is not much of a fan of boots on the ground (disclosure: his son wore those boots) but even so, there just seems something wrong about it.

For example, when Carrie is a CIA Station Chief, she orders a drone strike on a wedding. Before the dust settles, everyone is singing Happy Birthday over a cake that says "Drone Queen." Okay, Abu Grabe was real-world bad taste, but one hopes top CIA agents have better sense and sensibility these days. But, by now, viewers have no hope that writers will not club them over their heads with "issues."

Crazy Like a Bipolar Fox

After binge-watching 125 hours of Homeland, the Bear understands there's something called "bipolar disorder." (Rim shot.) But, seriously folks, Homeland's presentation of this as-yet scientifically unexplained uneven distribution of energy is worse than its sensational CIA portrayal.

Back at the start of season one, we think Carrie is just a slut. However, we learn that being a slut is part of her mental illness, just like tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt in a later season. (What is she spending it all on? Equipment for illegal surveillance?) And crying. A lot of crying. SNL spoof-worthy crying. 

Now, it is true that bad judgment is a hallmark of the manic pole of bipolar. Unless you are Carrie Mathison, who has an odd exception to bad judgment when it comes to figuring out threats to the homeland.

Of those 125 hours, it seems that 100 involve whether Carrie is on her meds or not. The problem for Carrie (and the security of the United States) is that bipolar people are only brilliant when they are off their meds.  (Come to think of it, maybe all that credit card debt is racked up at the knitting shop buying yarn for her String Theory walls.) When Carrie is faithful to her treatment, whether lithium or electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatment), she's a normal person not quite up to the emergency.

(Note to AstraZeneca lawyers: only your brand-name Seroquel is portrayed as something less than a miracle. In fact, in Homeland World it turns Carrie into a zombie who must pop speed just to save the country.)

However, when she is off her meds, she becomes manic Jane Bond, able to make connections no one else can. That's what makes her a "complex character," see? She must choose between normal-normal and crazy-brilliant. Bear supposes there is also some irony in the fact that the mentally ill person with delusions that only she understands the conspiracy of the season turns out not to be delusional. Which, like so much in Homeland, is a problem if you really think it through.

Forget that someone with non-managed bipolar problems of Carrie's mega-magnitude wouldn't last six months at Cinnabon, let alone the CIA. Forget that viewers only get one pole of Carrie's bipolar woes, the manic one. Watching someone lying in bed doesn't make good TV, either. ("Hi, this is Carrie. I won't be in the office for a while because, um, I have Avian Flu again, cough.") Forget that mania does not sharpen insight into the real world. And forget that drugs and shock treatments are not quick and reliable fixes.

But, since this show is about two things - espionage and bipolar disorder - viewers are unlikely to forget much of that, to the disservice of everyone to whom the bipolar label has been tacked.

Shockingly Cynical

The problem is, the writers mix enough true "chicken feed" into this parallel plot that viewers are liable to think they understand the reality of bipolar disorder. The Bear gets dramatic license. However, at some point a show works so hard selling their drama the license opens them to the accusation of cynically misleading viewers on a sensitive issue.

For example, when they take pains to add a whole lot of real-world medical detail in Carrie's second shock treatment scene, they only make things worse, because it seems so realistic.

Dropping "suxamethonium chloride" into the dialogue is not for Joe Viewer, who couldn't explain the difference between it and sodium chloride if Carrie beat him with a collapsible baton like she did Computer Ransomware Perv. (A promising plot line cut short if ever there was one.) It's a preemptive answer to critics that "We have done our research and are depicting ECT realistically, not like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Heck, give the Bear Carrie's ECT over a trip to the dentist any day. (Just one electrode though, lest he forget his cipher code to his CIA Headquarters office.)

And watching Carrie "act crazy" every episode got old long before season seven. Even assuming she could survive CIA drug screens and polygraphs ("No, I am not secretly getting crazy meds from my doctor sister or buying speed from the trunk of some guy's car") surely one does not rise in the Company by being "that woman with the crazy eyes."

Even Good TV is Bad

No better entertainment with
the exception of Ginger.
As the Bear has written before, there is no better entertainment than the best of the network prestige projects, such as Breaking Bad. In retrospect, Homeland was probably doomed by its very nature to plummet from critically-acclaimed supershow to self-parody. Part of the success of Breaking Bad was surely due to it not dealing with the country's methamphetamine issue. 

Despite the occasional Breaking Bad, it is still a bad time for insomniacs, no matter how many choices they have. 

Even the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul did not find its feet until season three. It is probably no coincidence that season three brought it closer to Breaking Bad, not only in the timeline, but in style, with homage paid to some memorable Breaking Bad visuals (e.g. gurgling up from the bottom of the swimming pool). Gus Fring and Madrigal's twitchy stevia-sipping exec Lydia Rodart-Quayle (talk about crazy eyes) among others made welcome comebacks. Season four is confirmed for later 2018, and it looks like we'll be reintroduced to DEA agent Hank Schraeder, too.

In the meantime, the Bear would be hard pressed to recommend much on television. Neither ratings nor critics are very reliable. There's always Breaking Bad. Or maybe 24 on Amazon. Which won a lot more Emmys than Homeland.


  1. You make it sound interesting. It has been a ridiculously long time since I watched ANY contemporary programming. We are officially "out of it" now, and cannot speak intelligently about any current programs at all. It is a wonderful diversion to have a good program to look forward to! I envy you this one. Do you enjoy watching repeats Bear? If I like a program or film, I can watch it repeatedly.
    I find life so demanding and stressful I seek out whatever relaxes me and makes me feel better about things. In other words, I only watch old films and programs. Right now I'm rewatching Mary Tyler Moore programs. I highly recommend them, they are really funny, well written, and so nostalgic they almost hurt.

    1. Well, maybe sort of interesting, but fatally flawed. I'll continue watching to the end, but I think they have shown poor judgment.

      I did watch 24 last night. First episode had pretty much everything you expected from it, except the infamous cougar. I hadn't remembered it came out a month after 911. Still fast-paced and entertaining.

      Better Call Saul is good if you can make it to season 3. I'll probably watch Breaking Bad again. There's not much out there, as I noted. Maybe the old movie, Damn Yankees :-)

  2. Bear, it's the 28th, the day our little captain in what was once merry old England has died, and I'm thinking of you. With your big heart, I know you must be in pain.
    Know that you have lots of company. Many are bereft but God's light will shine in the darkness. Hang in there, Bear and all.
    Please God, be near his parents.


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