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Inside Homeland

The epic TV show has already won awards, and promises to keep everyone on the edge of their seats in the second season this fall
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

(continued from page 7)

And you’ve built the award-winning show to a season climax in which you seemingly painted yourself into a creative corner, even as buzz about the show—and anticipation of its second season—continues to build.

Now what?­

If you’re Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, creators of Showtime’s gripping hit, “Homeland,” it’s time to break out the cigars.
“Cigars have been a great antidote for writer’s block,” says Gordon, executive producer of “Homeland.” “When we hit a tough story moment, Alex and I will slow down before we speed up. And cigars are a great way to do it.”

As Gordon admits on this day in February—two weeks into creating the show’s second season, which starts shooting in May and hits the air in October—figuring out where to take the story of “Homeland” presents an intriguing challenge. Or, to put it another way, there are a lot of cigars in his and Gansa’s immediate future.

“Fortunately, we’ve got the only office on the studio lot with ample space for a cigar room. Although, in this case, it’s a patio,” says Gordon, who is dividing his time between “Homeland” and the new NBC series, “Awake,” on which he also acts as executive producer. “We think of it as an al fresco cigar room. Somebody once described cigar-smoking as a portable campfire, where you’re forced to quiet your mind and engage in conversation. It allows more free-form associations, when you let things go rather than holding them tight. It allows you to access parts of your unconscious where the answers tend to lie.”

The first season of “Homeland” (which Gordon and Gansa came to after several seasons producing “24”) was an out-of-the-box hit with both critics and audiences. It already has won Golden Globe awards (for best dramatic series and for star Claire Danes as best actress in a TV series), as well as awards from the Writers Guild of America (as Best TV series of 2011) and the American Film Institute (as the best new series on TV). It’s a serious contender for September’s Emmy Awards, which should arrive just in time to promote “Homeland’s” second season in October.

But, as Gordon and Gansa talk in Gordon’s office on the studio lot of Twentieth Century Fox in Century City, California, they’re a mere two weeks into crafting the plotlines for Season 2. As they and their collaborators note, the challenge is to create a sophomore season that matches the first in quality, without the element of surprise they wielded when the show debuted in October 2011.

“We’ve been in the story room for two weeks, trying to figure out a way to tell the story with the same energy as we had the first season,” Gansa says. “That’s a little challenging. The main thing we’re trying to do is push the story between Carrie and Brody farther.”

As Gordon notes, “That’s always been the axis of the show’s premise: these two characters.”

(SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs reveal key plot points about the first season of “Homeland.”)

It’s the intersection of paranoia and terrorism, to be sure. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is an American Marine, long thought dead before being rescued after eight years of captivity in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having suffered torture and worse, Brody must adjust to the life he left behind in the U.S., a life that went on without him. His wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin), assuming Brody was dead, launched a relationship with Brody’s best friend; Brody’s return causes ripple effects not just for Brody’s wife, but for their children as well.

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a CIA agent with a checkered career because of her tendency to buck authority. A couple of years earlier, she’d been told by an informant that there was an American POW who had been turned by his al-Qaeda captors into a sleeper agent, who will return to the U.S. and carry out an attack. Now Carrie believes Brody is that sleeper.

But Carrie has a secret of her own: She suffers from bipolar disorder, which she hides from her employers by illicitly getting drugs from her sister, a physician, that manage her illness. When Carrie expresses her suspicions about Brody to her CIA superior and mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), the audience initially is left to wonder whether this is a fantasy whipped up as part of her condition or an example of her keen professional insight.

By the season finale, Brody has, in fact, been revealed (to the audience) as the sleeper agent Carrie believes, though she has no proof and can’t make anyone believe her. When he’s unable to carry out his suicide attack, Brody convinces his terrorist handlers that he is of more value to them alive, because his hero status has made him a political figure—one who the vice president has maneuvered into running for a suddenly empty Congressional seat.

Carrie, however, has had her mental illness revealed to her employers, who force her out of the CIA. She submits herself for electroshock therapy to deal with the depression part of her bipolar cycle, but just as she’s about to undergo the shock treatment (which will wipe out parts of her recent memory), she makes a mental connection that could prove Brody’s involvement with terrorists. Will she remember it when she wakes up? (END SPOILER ALERT.)

The show’s first season focused on issues—the nature of terrorism, the ramped-up security mentality in America post-9/11, the fallout of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—in ways that no previous TV series had. Figuring out the story for that first season was challenging; why, Gordon and Gansa note, should creating the second season be any easier? After all, when Gordon and Gansa wrote the show’s pilot, they had a premise—a returning POW/war hero who was a possible terrorist sleeper-agent, a bipolar CIA agent who is the only one who suspects him—but not much else.

“We spent a lot of time mapping and charting where the Brody story would take us to,” Gansa says. “We did a lot of work on that because there were a lot of details to figure out. We were not aware early on of how Brody would carry out his plan.”
“Or what his target would be,” Gordon adds.

Observes Henry Bromell, a consulting producer for the show who wrote two episodes, “Alex and Howard had some strong ideas about what the first season would be, and those mostly changed as we went along.  No matter what you say you’re going to do, if a show’s good, it will change while you’re doing it.”

Damian Lewis, who plays Brody, says that when he initially discussed the role with Gordon and Gansa, “They never made it clear whether Brody was a terrorist or not. I had a series of conversations with them. Ultimately, you go on a hunch.”

The show was inspired by “Prisoners of War,” a hit dramatic series from Israel about a pair of Israeli soldiers who return home after 17 years in captivity. But the Israeli series was strictly about the soldiers adjusting to their return home and the stress it placed on families they hadn’t seen in almost two decades. There was no terrorist-hunter like Carrie Mathison, no suspicions about the returnees’ loyalties, no terrorism subplot at all.

“We owe a great debt to that show,” Gansa says. “But ours is very different in terms of the facts of the story, because it’s set in America. In Israel, it was more of a family drama. The American version is a thriller.”

Chip Johannessen, an executive producer and writer for the show, says, “The Israeli version is the story of returning prisoners of war and there’s a love triangle. Here, the whole plot is, ‘Is he a terrorist?’ ”

“I loved the changes in direction that Alex and Howard brought to it,” says Gideon Raff, “Homeland” executive producer who created “Prisoners of War” for Israeli TV (where both shows are popular hits). “This show was similar enough to be familiar but different enough to be fresh.”

One key to the success of “Homeland” was its casting: the fiery, diminutive Danes as Carrie; the preternaturally calm, icy-eyed Lewis as Brody; the inwardly seething Patinkin as the mentor who alternately follows Carrie’s hunches and doubts them.

“The thing that attracted me to the character was the same thing that made me wary of her,” Danes says. “When I was discussing the pilot with my agent, she said, ‘You’ll have a lot to do.’ And that’s an understatement. Carrie is under great duress. That complexity is very attractive to an actor—but also very demanding. She’s so bold. She’s not fearless, but she’s very impulsive and decisive; she’s preternaturally intelligent. But she’s jangly—and maintaining that emotional pitch is challenging.”

Ironically, Lewis had just starred in a short-lived NBC series, “Life,” in which he played a Los Angeles cop, released from prison after being wrongfully incarcerated for several years, when he was offered the chance to play the just-freed Nicholas Brody.

“I enjoyed ‘Life’ so much—the level of the writing was so high—that it was a joy to play,” Lewis says. “And I thought, ‘Well, there will never be another role like that.’ Don Draper (of “Mad Men”) is taken. ‘The Wire’ is finished. But arguably, ‘Homeland’ is the new ‘Wire.’ I’m unbelievably lucky. When you see what’s on TV, having these two roles come my way is unbelievable.”

Patinkin relished the chance to be part of a show that deals with the issues that “Homeland” raises: “It’s extraordinary to be contemplating the kinds of questions this show does,” he says. “Those kinds of questions—about who are the terrorists, about who’s responsible for what was, is and will be—are rarely asked in life, let alone by the entertainment media. When I read the pilot and then met with Alex and Howard, their care for the world at large came through in that script. I think Claire said it best when she told me, ‘I could imagine having a seven-year discussion with Alex and Howard.’ ”

Actually getting network approval to cast their lead actors of choice was a different story. The producers had to fight for Danes (who had just won an Emmy for her performance in the HBO film Temple Grandin) for the role of Carrie.

“We wanted Claire from the beginning,” Gordon says. “We even pictured her as the template for the character, which is why the character’s name initially was Claire.”

“Showtime has a wonderful track record of creating shows with actresses at mid-career,” Gansa says. “Laura Linney, Edie Falco, Toni Collette—and they saw the character of Carrie that way. Robin Wright, Maria Bello, even Halle Berry, these were the names they were throwing around. Our feeling was that the character needed to be in her early 30s. Despite the disease, she also had this hope of still getting her life on track. If she’s too old, though, she’s past that point.”

Casting Lewis as Brody was an even tougher fight: “People were flinging phrases around like ‘Over my dead body,’ ” recalls Gansa.

After all, the British-born Lewis was relatively unknown in the U.S.; he’d been part of the ensemble cast of the Emmy-winning “Band of Brothers,” but his most visible American role had been in a short-lived NBC series, “Life.”

“He was perceived as being in a flop,” Gansa says. “So there was some reticence about casting him again as an American. He had no track record.”

The game-changer? A 2004 independent film, Keane, in which Lewis had played a man battling mental illness: “I’m massively proud of Keane, but I think it was seen by one man and a dog,” Lewis says. “Fortunately, Michael Cuesta had seen it and took it to Alex and Howard.”


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