"Mad Men" may have been first, "Scandal" the most surprising, but no other non-sci-fi show exemplifies the new age of OCD TV more than Showtime's "Homeland," which returns for its fourth season Sunday night.
From its glorious first season through its troubled third, the award-winning spy-drama has been praised, parsed, denounced, defended, deconstructed and eulogized within an inch of its life.
If some literate wonk would take American readers through the last few years of actual foreign policy with the same interpretive devotion dedicated to chronicling the rise and alleged fall of "Homeland," the world would undoubtedly be a better place.
It's useless to point out to those endlessly calling the time of death that the true mark of a failed show is that no one talks about it. Everyone still talks about "Homeland," albeit not always nicely — and everyone still should because it continues to be a brave if imperfect attempt to address the post-9/11 world.
It also has a truly remarkable main character in Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison, who is now the undisputed center of the show.
The death of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) at the end of last season removed a problem that began as the show's most glorious aspect and soon became its millstone. From the beginning, it would have been easy to center "Homeland" exclusively around Carrie, the bipolar but essentially valiant CIA operative even when she became determined to unmask recently rescued POW Brody as a traitor.
Instead, "Homeland" gave Brody a life of his own, and if his murderous intentions were very different than hers, the internal fractures that produced them were not; "Homeland" became a war of opposing, but not dissimilar forces.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, not even a show as ambitious and sophisticated as "Homeland" can sustain two more-broken-than-thou main characters, especially when those characters start sleeping together. And one of them kills the vice president.
So even those who remained true to "Homeland" through the Dana-bashing phase and the why-is-Brody-not-dead-already phase and the good-lord-Carrie's-pregnant phase will be relieved to see the show return to a clearer, if more standard, spy-thriller format. In which our hero fights evil of the international and domestic variety while also doing battle with herself.
Months after Brody's death, Carrie is now the CIA station chief in Kabul and the most perfect ice princess this side of "Frozen." Baby Franny is being ignored stateside, with Carrie's sister, while Carrie, or "The Drone Queen," as her underlings call her, ticks names off a kill list with ruthless efficiency. As we meet her targeting a farm house, potential civilian casualties are swept aside as less important than "the big picture."
They're not, of course. The terrorist inside the farm house may be dead, but so are dozens of innocent wedding guests, many more than the original intel had indicated. When heartbreaking video shot by a survivor (Suraj Sharma) hits the Internet, Carrie is forced to return home to confront her newly glacial attitudes, which include an utter lack of maternal feeling.
Events quickly point, as they so often do, to another conspiracy. Former mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Quinn (Rupert Friend) are scattered, and in various states of mental fitness, but there is little doubt the team will be reassembled, with a few additions including the very welcome Nazanin Boniadi as Fara Sherazi.
Early episodes are strong, if not as shattering as the inaugural season. One hopes "Homeland's" creative team has taken a few notes from "The Good Wife," which has also recently reinvented itself for the better.
Like Alicia Florrick, Carrie Mathison is a rare and vital character; the trick is to give her enough room to run but not so much that "run" is followed by "amok."
When: 9 p.m. Sunday