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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

You’ve just created the hottest new TV series of the 2011 season, a breakout hit that manages to be thrillingly compelling while blending such diverse issues as terrorism, mental illness, marital fidelity and national security.

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.”

“Alex called me up and told me to watch the movie,” Gordon recalls. “And when you watch it, he’s clearly that guy with the same intensity that the Brody character has. Once we showed Keane to people, they folded in.”

Patinkin had his own reputation for battling with producers before departing such series as “Chicago Hope” and “Criminal Minds”: “He had left a couple of shows, which never wins you friends,” Gansa says. “But he was so perfect for this part. He’s somebody I’ve loved since I saw him in Sunday in the Park with George on stage when I was 21. I enjoy writing his character because I love John le Carré novels and that character is so influenced by George Smiley and those old Cold Warriors of le Carré.”

When Gordon and Gansa crafted the show’s “bible” (the storyline for the entire season), they initially thought they had enough plot for the first two seasons; the first season would end with the reveal that Brody’s late partner and fellow POW, Tom Walker (Chris Chalk)—who Brody believed he’d been forced to beat to death by their al-Qaeda captors—was, in fact, alive and in the U.S., as the terrorist sleeper with a suicide mission. Instead, as they worked, they found themselves compressing plot points.

“The basic idea when we started the season was that we eventually would have these two broken people come together and find solace in each other,” says Michael Cuesta, executive producer who also directed four episodes. “I don’t think we knew when it was going to happen. But we knew the relationship would be the crux of the show, the main draw. It was a sleeping-with-the-enemy thing.”

Johannessen adds, “A lot of the specifics didn’t come until we were writing the episodes, a lot of the big moments. But there were certain themes that were things we were going to get to—the question was how to get there. And we were trying to find a balance between the story of Brody’s (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the one about his plot against America.”

The question of Brody’s loyalty was up in the air until the end of the eighth episode—and the seventh episode (“The Weekend”) created a seismic plot shift, with Carrie and Brody going away for an initially intimate, eventually tense weekend, in which he figures out that she suspects him. But that episode—one of the season’s most compelling because it offered such a change of pace—was originally imagined as something very different.

“We always envisioned ‘The Weekend’ as more of an interrogation, with Carrie interrogating Brody in a safe house,” Gansa says. “Instead, it became a strange, romantic idyll in the woods.”

“I didn’t know they’d take the character to such extremes in the first season,” Danes says. “They just went balls-out. They pushed it to the very edge. They don’t play it safe and I’m in awe of that.”

Lewis knew that the central idea—that a U.S. Marine could be changed in the way that Brody is—was a crucial one to bring off.

“That a man can choose something that is so radically different from his own experience is a scary thought,” Lewis says. “Particularly a U.S. Marine—they represent everything that most of us in the West believe in. He undergoes an ideological change but it is an active choice, rather than simply being ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ who is brainwashed. It feels more dangerous that he actively would choose something like this.”

Even as they worked, the “Homeland” producers had no sense of how the show would be received. They were in the middle of shooting the fifth episode of the season when “Homeland” made its debut on Showtime, to blazingly positive reviews.

Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It’s the first telling of a post-9/11 story that is all the things it should be: politically resonant, emotionally wrenching and plain old thrilling to watch…‘Homeland’s lead performances are so good it’s almost unearthly, like a sky with two suns.”

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley called the show “well-made and gripping,” saying “it was almost impossible to resist.”

“The best new show of the fall debuts tonight,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote on Salon.com. “It’s hard to oversell the excellence of this cast.”

“Saying we were surprised by the response is an understatement,” Gordon says.

Adds Gansa, “We were stunned. We didn’t know how people would respond. When the first episode aired, we still existed in this wonderful place of anonymity, working under the radar. There was something nice about that. When you spend so much time just trying to fashion something that works, it’s hard to maintain your distance. When all these fresh eyes came to it, it was amazing.”

The show rapidly became both a critical and popular hit, a watercooler topic that kept viewers debating for two months whether or not Nicholas Brody was a sleeper agent bent on attacking the United States. By the eighth episode, when the point was settled, the audience was hooked. Asked on “The View” in December which TV shows he regularly watched, President Barack Obama mentioned only two—and one of them was “Homeland.”

“Homeland” is part of the renaissance in TV drama, one led by cable television. Indeed, since 1999 (when “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO), both pay- and basic cable have created series that are not only better than what the networks are dishing out, but better written and more creative than the bulk of the movies that reach theaters. Shows such as “Mad Men,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Breaking Bad,” “Big Love,” “Six Feet Under,” “Rescue Me,” “Dexter,” “The Shield” and now “Homeland” have their roots in a handful of network shows that rewrote the rules—shows like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Northern Exposure,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Twin Peaks” and “NYPD Blue,” which used the multi-episode format of TV to craft stories that didn’t need to be contained in a single show.

“You can tell a different kind of story over 10 or 12 episodes,” Gansa says.

Gordon says, “It’s closer to a novel. I think that’s the right literary analogy. Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Homeland’ are like novels, where you can take your time developing the characters and the storylines.”

“There’s very little room in most Hollywood movies for any kind of real writing,” Bromell says. “But the opportunities in TV have gotten a lot more interesting. There were a few shows on the networks, like ‘thirtysomething’ and ‘Homicide: Life on the Street,’ that tried something new. Then cable took those same writers and allowed them to grow, without commercial breaks or standards-and-practices guys breathing down your necks. It’s a weird confluence of a slightly newer medium and writers with an eye set on the goal of creating good drama.”

Says Johannessen, “At this point, Hollywood is run by brand managers, not movie makers.” Cuesta, who has made a handful of independent films and directed the pilot of “Dexter,” says, “It took TV that worked without sponsors—like HBO and Showtime—to get that kind of good writing out there. On cable, you can do anything as long as people watch. And Hollywood film versus premium cable? It’s no contest. Writers decide, ‘I can be an auteur in TV,’ where TV used to be something that writers kind of shunned.”

Gordon and Gansa got their start in TV together, as writers and eventually producers on such cult-inspiring shows as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The X-Files.” Gordon went on to work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” then the full run of “24,” while Gansa produced such shows as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Numb3ers” and “Entourage,” before the pair was reunited for the final season of “24.”

The production offices for “24” included a cigar room, though both Gordon and Gansa had been cigar lovers previously: “Wandering into ‘24’ took it to a whole new level,” Gansa recalls.

His own cigar education began while working on a series, “Maximum Bob,” with producer-director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black): “Barry was directing the pilot of the show in Miami and he got me started,” Gansa says. “My first cigar was a Partagas Serie D No. 4. I remember sitting in this old hotel in Coral Gables, the Biltmore, drinking mojitos and smoking cigars. It became a thing with us: Every time Barry came to Miami, he and I would have a cigar. My dad smoked cigars and we started sharing them. That 45 minutes together rejuvenated our relationship.”

Gordon, who owns two humidors, started smoking cigars while working on “The X-Files”: “I was part of a wine club and some of the guys in the club were cigar collectors,” he recalls. “I was excommunicated from the wine group because I didn’t pay close enough attention and didn’t retain enough knowledge. I guess it’s the same with cigars; I pretty much stick with one that I like and smoke it for a while. I like the Fuente Work of Art, but you don’t always have time to indulge like that. I like a Montecristo No. 2, too.”

He holds up a prized souvenir of his years on “24,” a lethal-looking cigar cutter, saying, “This was a prop on the show. It belonged to a Russian ambassador whose finger found its way into the cutter.”

As noted, Gordon and Gansa turn to the cigars when confronted with knotty writing problems—and they acknowledge that the challenges are big for “Homeland” and its second season.

“We’re at a point where the rubber has not hit the road yet, so there are a bunch of possibilities,” Gansa says. “We’re trying to figure out a way to tell a story with the same energy as the first season, and that’s a bit challenging.”

“It will very much be a continuation of the first year,” Gordon adds. “We’re very excited about ways to bring Carrie back. And the story of Nicholas Brody is only beginning.”

The second season will begin six to 12 months after the end of the first season. While Gansa and Gordon won’t give away particulars, they are hoping to shoot for a couple of weeks in the Middle East. And they mention introducing a major new character.

“The first season was very crystallized in the premise, which had this great hook,” Gordon says.

Says Gansa, “The second year will be different—different rhythm, different narrative, different energy.”

They’ll draw upon the current headlines for inspiration: “There have been so many fantastic world events, from the Arab Spring to Israel threatening to bomb Iran. That’s fascinating for the intelligence community to deal with,” Gansa says. “I was just in Washington, D.C., meeting with some active and retired intelligence officers. And they said that there are discussions at the highest level of government about the same issues we’re dealing with. There is concern in the intelligence community about things like whether we can, in an extrajudicial way, blow people up from long distance, while we’re prevented from interrogating people in a harsh way on the ground. We’re dealing with that moral quandary of how to project American power overseas.”

Bromell believes that the second season allows for a chance to do more episodes like “The Weekend,” which dig more deeply into character than story: “We don’t constantly have to escalate the plot and blow shit up,” he says.

Cuesta adds, “The biggest challenge of the second season is to get people to like it as much as they did the first. So we have to find a way to keep the stakes as high.”

“I think we’re all wondering what’s going to happen,” Lewis says. Adds Danes, “I can’t anticipate what they’re going to do but I have implicit faith in them. I don’t doubt their skill or their chutzpah. I know they’ll put me through the wringer. The first season was a workout but it’s incredibly thrilling. I was fed by the work.”

Patinkin will bring the same approach to a second season that he brought to the first: “I tell the writers not to tell me what’s going to happen,” he says. “I want to find out when I turn the page.”

Gordon and Gansa relish the task of coming up with the second season for a hit show. It’s the kind of problem they enjoy having.

“We’ve got a very exacting group of writers,” Gordon says of the six-person writing staff. “Everybody has either created or run shows, so everybody has roughly the same amount of experience, and that shows. If we please them and ourselves, well, no one has a higher standard for the show. We don’t believe it will be good just because we’re the ones doing it. You’ve got to do battle in the writers’ room to get it through, and nobody folds easily.”

That brings him back to cigars, the smoking of which will feature extensively in figuring out just where Season 2 of “Homeland” will take Gordon, Gansa, their characters and their audience.

“I think there’s an analogy between cigars and TV,” Gordon says. “In a sense, TV like this is handcrafted, the way the best cigars are. I was a guest of the Fuentes once and when I watched them roll cigars, those guys were artists. Watching new cigars being rolled, it was like watching sculptors at work. The care that was taken demonstrated an old-world commitment to quality that I hope Alex and I bring to the show.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about movies and entertainment on his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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