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'Homeland' gets a 'major reset' for Season 4

'Homeland' gets a 'major reset' for Season 4
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who endured a tragic third season, is on the job in Afghanistan in Season 4 of “Homeland.” (Joe Alblas / Showtime)

Perhaps no other show on the air has experienced such whiplash-inducing extremes of praise and criticism as "Homeland," a program that's become a cautionary tale about the dangers of creating ambitious television in an era of relentless scrutiny and ever-increasing expectations.

A critical darling and instant sensation when it premiered in 2011, the Showtime series had, by the end of its third season last year, become a pop culture punching bag, thanks to plot twists that occasionally strained credulity or were, according to some, executed in bad faith. Not only did the critics howl, but the awards suddenly dried up: In 2012, "Homeland" swept the Emmys, including for dramatic series; this year it wasn't even nominated in the category.

But don't count it out just yet. When "Homeland" returns Sunday night with successive episodes, it may just woo back the skeptics. Following what show runner Alex Gansa calls a "major reset," the series has a new international setting, a spate of new characters and a revived focus on espionage rather than domestic melodrama.

Most notable among the changes is the absence of Nicholas Brody, the POW turned congressman turned international fugitive played by Damian Lewis who was a love interest for Claire Danes' troubled CIA analyst, Carrie Mathison. And — spoiler alert for those behind on their Season 3 viewing — Lewis' character was executed during a covert mission in Iran. (Also off the show: his family, including much-maligned teenage daughter Dana.)

"It's a post-Brody 'Homeland,'" Gansa said. "It was incumbent on us to take Carrie, this character that people have come to know over the past three years, and put her in a new geographical space and a new emotional space and to make that story feel compelling. It's up to all our fans and our critics to tell us if we're successful or not."

Accordingly, the setting has moved from the relative safety of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs to the Middle East — specifically to the hot zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Carrie has been reassigned.

"The big idea this season was that we wanted to see this character do the thing she was trained to do, and that is be an intelligence officer overseas," Gansa said.

Following Brody's harrowing death, the first step in rebuilding the show was deciding where to send its protagonist. At the end of Season 3, Carrie, pregnant with the daughter she conceived with Brody, had just been appointed station chief in Istanbul.

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However tempting it might have been to film there, the city was quickly ruled out because the Turkish government would have required script approval on every episode, according to Gansa. His effort to postpone the season a few months to allow more time for retooling met resistance from Showtime, he said.

Then, in what's become an annual rite, the "Homeland" writing staff met early this year with members of the intelligence community in Washington, D.C., where in their conversations it became clear the action should be centered in either Israel or Pakistan.

The former location was ruled out because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "just such a difficult, difficult situation to dramatize and to explicate," Gansa said. (The decision also proved wise on a more practical level, given the violence in Gaza this summer, which forced two other series, FX's "Tyrant" and USA's "Dig," to pull up stakes.)

In contrast, Pakistan presents "a very murky and double-dealing world which is perfect for an American intelligence operation," Gansa said. "Anybody who's anybody in the CIA wants to be stationed there because it's such a fascinating place to work, not to mention dangerous."

In Sunday's premiere, "The Drone Queen," Carrie is now the boss in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she authorizes a deadly missile strike based on intelligence gathered by her unusually secretive counterpart in Islamabad (Corey Stoll). When the bombing leads to massive collateral damage and sets off a diplomatic firestorm, Carrie travels to Pakistan to investigate. A key piece in the puzzle is a medical student, played by Suraj Sharma ("Life of Pi"), who survives the disastrous missile strike.

Because of the reassignment to more dangerous turf, Carrie is unable to bring any dependents, meaning that her infant daughter, Franny, is being cared for by her sister back at home. (Sadly, one unplanned-for adjustment to this season is the loss of James Rebhorn, who played Carrie's father. He died in March.) For someone who is not exactly brimming with maternal instincts and still hasn't processed her grief over Brody's death, the physical separation provides something of a relief.

"She's still quite traumatized by what happened and has responded to that by just not dealing emotionally and focusing entirely on her work on the ground," Danes said. "Her emotional arc over the course of the season is to soften and actually engage with these very painful feelings so that she can accept her role as a mother."

After three seasons in Charlotte, N.C., which doubled for the nation's capital, cast and crew are based in Cape Town, South Africa — a location that offers a large Muslim community for background casting and landscape that can, with the help of Hollywood magic, pass for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The move abroad to more exotic locales not only provides what Gansa calls a "palate cleanser" for the audience, but those involved with the series say the region's own dramatic history of conflict and resolution has been inspiring — particularly at a time of such grim news in the Middle East.

"It's very moving to be somewhere where a man like Nelson Mandela came to prominence," said Mandy Patinkin, whose character, Saul Berenson, has now left public service for a lucrative job with a private security contractor. "I'm reminded that I'm living in a place where horror was once in abundance and the boil has been lanced and life has improved."

Whether the remade version of "Homeland" will silence its detractors remains to be seen, but in truth it may not matter. Despite the critical beating it's taken, the show remains a ratings hit for Showtime, with an audience that has steadily grown each season, reaching an average of 7 million viewers per episode across all platforms last year.

"Of course it is painful and hurts," Gansa said of the backlash. "We were on the mountaintop, and we were in the weeds a little, and hopefully we can get back to the mountaintop again."

Follow me on Twitter: @Meredith Blake

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