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‘Homeland’ works to sustain tension after last season’s reveal

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a well-manicured park on a balmy North Carolina morning, Nicholas Brody is losing his cool.

The American POW-turned-terrorist from the Showtime series “Homeland,” played by Damian Lewis, is meeting with a representative of archterrorist Abu Nazir. With each take, Brody’s resentment toward the shadowy forces manipulating him creeps upward.

“And who are ‘THEY’ anyway?” Lewis spits, his head trembling with anger. At one point, the disgust has become so palpable that the actor himself seems to feel it: He lets go a quick but loud admonition to an assistant director who has been talking during takes. The moment will later prompt the crew to discuss (among themselves) the infamous Christian Bale episode on the set of “Terminator Salvation.”

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Lewis has a resolute focus on set — in a shoot that afternoon he’ll pilot a rigged SUV through downtown traffic while offering a nuanced performance — that embodies the show’s fiery spirit. Though “Homeland” is an entertaining thriller, it’s still deadly serious; while a hit (nearly 2 million viewers tuned in to the Season 1 finale in December), it also asks meaningful political and moral questions.

As it kicks off its second season Sept. 23, the series about weighty subjects like war, secrecy and loyalty has more juice than perhaps any other returning drama. But as a visit to the set suggests, creating a show that’s both cerebral and fun isn’t easy.

And it won’t get any easier this go-round, when the series must sustain tension even though the central mystery of Brody’s allegiance has been revealed. Indeed, much of the show’s appeal the first season came from a pedal-to-metal series of cliffhangers. The writers aim for that this year too but with a counter-intuitive approach.

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“Our first narrative priority this season is to throttle down,” said show runner Alex Gansa, who executive produces the show with former “24" show runner Howard Gordon. “We can’t start the season at such a heightened rate that it reaches an insane level by Episode 4 or 5.”

Building a series around a mentally unstable CIA agent was always going to be risky, even in the wide-leeway world of cable television. Centering it on an American soldier who is planning the unthinkable was downright lunatic. Perhaps only “Breaking Bad” would turn someone so problematic into a main character, and even Walt White never plotted to bring down the U.S. government on behalf of Islamofascism.

If you haven’t kept up with cable’s latest sensation, “Homeland,” loosely adapted from an Israeli drama (that program’s Gideon Raff is also an executive producer here), follows the brilliant but bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes, who, like Lewis, is nominated for an Emmy). Carrie suspects Brody is a terrorist. But aside from her paternal CIA mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), she can’t get any of her colleagues to believe her.

Meanwhile, Brody is struggling to readjust to life with his wife and kids while also taking covert orders from Abu (Navid Negahban) for a massive suicide plot. His years as a captor in the Middle East have made him see American militarism from the other side, and he’s consumed by rage over what drone strikes did to Abu Nazir’s young son, to whom he had grown close. Brody and Carrie also begin a complicated professional dynamic that turns romantic, then falls apart.

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The entire show can be viewed, with surprisingly little muscle strain, as a parable for the world wrought by Sept. 11, where the issue of who is an enemy — and, indeed, how to deal with the very uncertainty of the question — became paramount. Lewis, who is British, goes a step further, seeing an embattled Carrie as a symbol for a besieged U.S. economy. The show has even resonated in the White House, where President Obama is said to have watched and liked it.

The first season ended with several cliffhangers. Brody was revealed to be a terrorist but decided not to blow himself up and instead run for office, presumably to subvert the system from within. Having been fired from the agency, Carrie was last seen about to undergo an extreme form of electroshock therapy, going under just as she remembered a critical piece of information. There was no reveal on an apparent CIA mole who had been passing information to Nazir.

This season begins six months after the last one left off. Carrie is attempting to start a new life outside the CIA, while Brody has made good on his bid for Congress. Both seem relatively happy. The idyll, needless to say, doesn’t last.

The show’s actors acknowledge that they’ve found it trickier to create subtlety now that the rules have been laid down. “Everything is so much more expressive this year that it can become melodramatic,” said Lewis, who also played a U.S. soldier in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” “Initially, it was a little disconcerting.”

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And keeping audiences off-balance as the series marches through its reveals will require careful balance. “You can’t let the cat out of the bag too much in crafting this show,” said Michael Cuesta, who has directed many episodes. “To keep it interesting, viewers still have to worry about who Brody really is.”

Love and terrorism

Before “Homeland,” most shows with Sept. 11 undertones had struggled. With terrorism rattling around the news, people didn’t want to watch fictional shows about people blowing themselves up in public places. Or, if they did, it was via the cartoonish triumphs of a “24,” not the moral ambiguity of a “Homeland.”

The gamble that Gansa, Gordon and production company Fox 21 made was that showing the ugly real-world possibilities would enhance, not undermine, the program’s entertainment value.

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“Alex and Howard’s worldview is fairly bleak,” Lewis said, referring to the executive producers as he sat in his trailer between takes. “But that actually goes hand in hand with a thriller, which peddles uncertainty.”

Still, the stars were unsure if the show could be palatable or even ethical. Danes acknowledges reservations as she mulled whether to make a return to series television after more than 15 years by signing on to a program about an American terrorist. “I almost worried it could be exploitational or that it would just be upsetting for the sake of it,” she said. Ultimately, she said, she was convinced after observing a flair for thematic sophistication on the part of producers.

She might also have added the import of the tender relationship between her character and Saul Berenson. Saul mentored Carrie and is left as one of her lone defenders when her theories about Brody begin to grow more outlandish. As those who watch the show know, seeing Saul stick his neck out for Carrie, often against his own interests, lends the thriller an unusual poignancy.

If the tango between Carrie and Brody is the show’s narrative center, the relationship she has with Saul is its emotional one. “This is a show about true love,” Patinkin said. “That’s why I decided to do it.”

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As it turns out, that regard is something the actors feel too. Though each says they don’t talk about it much, the bond the pair has formed is strong. “We did the read-through, and I was a bit startled by the strength of the connection,” Danes said. “He’s identical to my best friend’s father, which kind of reduces me to my 8-year-old self.”

Patinkin goes further. “She moves me so much,” he said, his eyes welling up and his voice cracking when asked about their off-screen dynamic. “There is so much life in everything she …,” he stopped, as he grew more choked up. Patinkin has two grown sons, and Danes, he suggested after gathering himself, fills a hole for the daughter he’s never had.

Patinkin is sitting behind the desk of his office on the show’s giant soundstage in a suburb of downtown Charlotte. It’s the CIA-themed office you see Saul working from on the show, but Patinkin sometimes uses it as his actual office, filling it with his personal knickknacks like a Winnie-the-Pooh doll.

A few minutes before, he wrapped a scene in which he’s forced to defend Carrie once again.

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Watching Patinkin, one is struck by how much acting comes with the small details, like his eyes or even his breath. He lets out a little sigh after his character has temporarily gotten his boss off his back, somehow suggesting relief, resignation and resentment all at the same time.

Patinkin said that he believes that in addition to the core relationships on the show, there is another important one, between the audience and the subject matter.

“Ten years ago, you couldn’t question the commander in chief and what we were doing overseas,” he said. “But this is a piece that is of its time. Drone strikes and our method of warfare has created a lot of resentment, and it’s OK to talk about that.”

The Charlotte shuffle

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Most high-end shows with genre elements need to toe a thin line. “Homeland” does that via four creative types with different backgrounds. The balance among Gansa (who’s well versed in psychological thrillers after working on “The X-Files”), Gordon (with his deep “24" background, an action-thriller guru), Raff (the Israeli-American outsider) and Cuesta (an indie-film veteran behind festival darlings like “L.I.E.” and a drama specialist) provides a kind of equilibrium. If the show is going too fast, Cuesta might tell Gordon it needs to slow down; it if it needs an action boost, Gordon will prod some of his colleagues.

“Homeland” is also evidence of what happens when you take some extremely educated people and put them together to create television.

Gansa is apt to use words like “raw ganglia” — metaphorically. Gordon went to Princeton. A query to Lewis about the show’s plot yields a detailed disquisition about the history of Cold War politics.

“Yeah, I noticed that too,” Danes said, self-deprecatingly, when pointed out the collective IQ of the writing staff. (The actress went to Yale.)

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The producers have also created one of the more unusual environments in which to shoot a television show. Much of the cast and crew live in the same downtown Charlotte apartment building — nicknamed “the dorm” — and they often spend time in one another’s apartments, hosting dinner parties and hanging out on weekends. “It helps that there’s not much to do in Charlotte,” Cuesta explained.

There was also a different kind of challenge this season — Danes’ real-life pregnancy with husband Hugh Dancy.

On one day of this reporter’s visit, Danes is set to shoot a love scene, something she acknowledged “isn’t easy any time and really not easy when you’re deep in your second trimester.” Cuesta and Gansa spent extra time preparing her. (Danes’ pregnancy is not written into the season. Cuesta and the other directors shot around it even as she approached her third trimester.)

Though they won’t say so publicly, creators are building a world they hope will last well beyond Danes’ pregnancy into a third season and beyond. Some critics have questioned whether they can do that without repeating themselves or turning to the pyrotechnics of “24.”

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Those who work on it acknowledge they must continue developing complicated characters and not just reveals. But they say they can do so if they focus on a character who represents something larger — like Carrie, who given her illness is sometimes divided against herself.

“This country is going through a period of introspection, maybe for the first time since the ‘20s or ‘30s,” Lewis said. “It’s a time of innovation and invention. But the country also has a dark, dark soul, a black heart. Politics are polarized, and the poor and the wealthy are polarized. That’s what I think Carrie represents.” He added, “I think as long as people see themselves in her they’ll keep coming back.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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