MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]

OKAY, NOW I’M WORRIED….

[NOTE: For those interested in my previous takes on Homeland, they can be found here and here.]

The jury will be out until next year (for me, at least, as I don’t have Showtime or a desire to keep up with a weekly series), but if this whole Change Election thing has caused Homeland to lose its nerve, I may just have to throw one of those hissy-fits that are all the rage.

Nerve is what Homeland has. And nerve is all the show has in the sense that, no matter how reliable Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are, even they are lost without it.

The rest of the show is hit-and-miss anyway. The acting is mostly fine, but the casting is all over the place. The payoffs (until Season 5) have been powerful, but the narrative runs hither-and-yon elsewhere. The one element that was bankable before now, besides the quality and commitment of the two perfectly cast leads, was the instability of the basic idea: that the national security of the world’s superpower comes down to a barely stable bipolar blonde who’s a borderline sociopath and works better–often way better–off her meds, plus a Wise Old Owl’s uncertain ability to control her.

Most of that went away in Season 5 and the signals for Season 6 are decidedly mixed.

On her meds, Carrie is apparently a catch. She’s got men falling at her feet, a trait that required a fair suspension of disbelief even when former paramours Brody and Quinn could at least be explained by crazy being drawn to crazy. This season, where she’s Miss Responsibility all of a sudden–something like a real life CIA agent might be if you buy the vision of the CIA being currently promulgated by its various media assets–she’s still grabbing off top male talent like she was Jennifer Aniston or something.

There’s an idealistic lawyer. There’s his boss at the foundation. There’s a sanitized Quinn. Carrie’s ability to manipulate people because she wants to be in their heads more than they want to be in hers spends most of the season under wraps. Without it busting out of the pen once in a while–and, more to the point, threatening to bust out at any time–I found myself nodding off.

That’s something that never happened in the first four seasons, no matter how many plot-holes I counted up without trying, or how low the burdens of all the inevitable “family” stuff bent my back.

“Carrie will be back,” I kept muttering. “And she’ll be proving, once again, that the CIA’s best agent–the one who stands between us and the Eve of Destruction–is as stable as an open vial of nitroglycerine in the hands of a drug addict being chased by a Grizzly.”

Without that–and with Carrie and Saul kept apart for most of the season by the professional and emotional break that occurred at the end of Season 4–there was just a spy story. It was all about double and triple agents double and triple-crossing each other and nothing the early Brit-masters (Ambler, Greene, Buchan) didn’t do better before Hitler invaded Poland.

I’ll be back in another year. I’m not giving up on a show that has had its finger on the pulse of modern paranoia for four seasons just because they threw in a stinker.

But I’m putting it on notice. It’s not a good sign that the promos for Season 6 indicate the show-runners predicted a female president. Pulp masters who can’t sniff the air just wind up sucking for oxygen.

Oh, I’ll hang in.

But no more backing down. No more making Carrie Mathison likeable. If Danes is exhausted, I don’t care. Take away her producer’s credit and put her back on salary. Show no mercy.

For down the current path, the worst monster of all lies.

You know the one: Banality.

Too much of that and there won’t be a paycheck for anyone. This is too important to muff, people. Get back on the stick.

THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

MEET THE NEW SPIES, NOT QUITE THE SAME AS THE OLD SPIES (Segue of the Day: 10/23/15)

Homeland: Season 4 and Bridge of Spies (WARNING: Spoilers included)

homeland4

My, how time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was pondering Homeland‘s Season 1 and wondering just how far Claire Danes could take Carrie Mathison and this week I was binge-watching Season 4, which was easily the strongest season since the first. Not that she, or the show, have ever really backed off, as I feared they might. The basic concept, that we’re now in the hands of crazy people with conveniently shifting moral codes (shifting that is, for their own convenience and if that happens to coincide with “national security” aren’t we all lucky!) because who else would ever want to  be part of this game, has remained intact.

But, Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody wasn’t exactly the highlight of Season 1 (either as a character or a performance) and he and his family situation became a real drag on Seasons 2 and 3. Frankly I had always believed any chance to look at Morena Baccarin, who played Brody’s long-suffering wife, doing absolutely anything at all was worth whatever one had to go through, but Brody made me seriously question my commitment. That he ended up dying a heroic death while Carrie was pregnant with his baby didn’t exactly set my little patch of woods on fire. Better for Carrie, Danes and the show if she had offed him.

Well that didn’t happen but at least he’s gone and that meant there was a possibility they (character, actress and Homeland) could all get back to pushing the envelope: And that’s exactly what they did.

I’m amazed that some of this show’s fans/critics get concerned with things like the plausibility of some bit of narrative (or just the whole thing) or whether the show is sufficiently sensitive to the Other.

Good lord.

The “narrative” is that this woman is as crazy as a loon. She can’t possibly operate anywhere except deep inside a security state that could care less about its own side as anything but a cocoon to exist within, let alone any Other that might exist for any reason except to give the cocoon a reason to keep on keeping on.

And she will do absolutely anything to stay embedded in the only world that will have her.

Oh sure, they have subplots and all. Carrie having a baby which her sister has to take care of, or her long estranged mom showing up at her dad’s funeral gives everybody a chance to pretend she’s got problems just like the rest of us. But that’s all a crock, just like Brody’s various family problems were in the first three seasons. Carrie’s crazy. That’s what the show’s about.

Oh, and, on the big things, Carrie’s right. I mean, she would be wouldn’t she?

Inside the house of vile mirrors we now call a government, who but a crazy person with the moral compass of a hungry cat could be expected to see anything at all? Every time she doesn’t kill people, even more people die. And when she’s stopped from killing Saul Berenson at mid-season here (in as good as scene as anybody’s ever going to play on television), not only do lots more people die as a result, but Saul himself (still being played by a Mandy Patinkin who keeps pulling off the miracle of being Danes’ equal, as both performer and character, a miracle that will sink the show if it ever stops happening, because it’s clear by now that Danes, who might be the first actor/producer who is applying the Method full bore crazy at both ends, is going to wipe everybody else off the screen if he doesn’t keep popping in every ten minutes) loses a piece of his soul.

Apparently Season 5 is going to be about whether he can buy it back. At least they set it up that way. And at this point, I’m almost convinced they’ll all be brave enough to realize he can’t. That is, they’ll be brave enough to realize nobody can, even if they don’t believe in souls.

bridgeofspies

Which brings be to Bridge of Spies, which. after a long night cozying up to Homeland, I finally caught on a fourth try (many long stories involving missed times, no need to bore you further) and which exemplifies Steven Speilberg’s efforts to hold on to the notion that, if we were sane once, we might be sane again, if we could only remember how to find our way back.

I’m skeptical.

I too, would like to believe that having people of principle in positions of responsibility is still a viable option. But we’ll need to find new definitions for most of the words in that sentence, something like a new language, before we can even hope to grope our way forward out of the new darkness. Finding a way back usually just means going backwards and, if we go backwards from where we are right now–in the world Homeland does such a good job of delineating–we’ll either head straight to Tyranny or make one stop at Chaos along the way.

That said, this is a fine effort. Speilberg’s a romantic of the old school, so it’s always a bit touching to see him operating in a world where he’s now so clearly an anachronism. But he seems to have realized this about himself, and, if he can’t quite excise his tendency to go woozy on occasion, even with a Coen Brothers script helping (whatever their multitude of sins, overt sentimentality isn’t one of them), he at least keeps the vice to a minimum here and creates a genuine nostalgia for Cold War clarity and an old fashioned decency that would have Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison wondering just what Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan is really up to.

So, in a way, Bridge of Spies, trapped in a past that’s as far from us as the Old West was from John Ford, and is, unlike Ford’s west, no longer deemed worth remembering and thus dying a quick death at the box office, is simultaneously mired as deeply in the modern malaise as Homeland.

But Claire Danes is the real auteur now. Unless, of course, somewhere deep inside the security state where we can’t see, there’s some real life version of Carrie Mathison running loose at at the back of it all, absolutely convinced she can keep us safe from everyone but herself.

THEY PROBABLY DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT THAT WAY, BUT… (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #14, Claire Danes In Homeland Really Is All That)

I’ve said here before that “modern” television doesn’t appeal to me much, mostly because the reach tends to exceed the grasp by an almost infinite measure (the suggestion that these shows now do what movies used to do seems to me little more than an admission that nothing has officially replaced something).

However….

I haven’t exactly been in a High Art mood lately. It helps if you can stay awake–which I find pretty much impossible during those weeks when the French Open and the NBA Finals are double-teaming me morning and night.

So, when last Thursday evening found me morbidly depressed (after Tim Duncan’s 37-year-old knees couldn’t get enough lift to drop in a point-blank shot in the final minute of game seven of the NBA finals–probably because his 37-year-old back was exhausted from carrying the lifeless corpses formerly known as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli around for most of the series and literally all of games 6 and 7, not that I’m bitter or anything), I decided to take my mind off things by driving to the local all-night Wal-Mart that is furthest from my house and picking up the cheap Season One package of Burn Notice (which is old-fashioned television for those keeping score and fun on a lot of levels, but essential because, sooner or later in every episode, Sharon Gless shows up with her definitive Chain-Smoking-South-Florida-Late-Middle-Age-Wife-and/or-Mother-Who-Can’t-Wait-For-Bingo-Night, the only portrayal on modern television that reminds me of anyone I grew up with or, for that matter, of any recognizable human being at all).

Scrounging around–Wal-Mart never keeps the thing you are actually looking for in the place where you would reasonably expect to find it (I’m convinced this is the key to their success as they are the only corporation that recognizes how deeply Americans still love a mindless, pointless challenge!)–I also came across Season One of Homeland and, recalling encomiums from various people I respect, talked myself into making it my $29.95 “splurge of the month.”

And, of course, the most insistent of those plaudits have come in praise of Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison, the-bossy-but-tormented-white-woman-charged-with-the-security-of-the-free-world-whose-love-life-is-definitely-in-the-toilet-as-a-result (yes, it’s an actual type now, Hollywood will never run out of ways to kick women in the face, though it’s at least possible that Danes has found a way to kick back).

The praise is well-deserved. But I’m not convinced it’s for the right reasons.

It seems that what has impressed most reviewers is an evidently accurate portrayal of someone coping with bipolar disorder. I’ll buy that Danes is authentic in that respect. I’ll even buy that that’s plenty of reason for her to have swept up a lot of well-earned awards for this particular season. Conveying that kind of edge and intensity for an entire season can’t be easy.

But I’m more impressed by her capacity for getting under the skin of the great modern American dilemma, which is the question of whether the creation and maintenance of a massive security state is a valid response to…well…anything?

Because the thing that’s most striking about Danes’ character isn’t that she’s coping with a damaging mental disorder while operating under the kind of stress that would likely drive even a stable personality to suicide.

No, the thing that’s really striking–disturbing actually–is that you can’t trust her. I mean, this girl will lie to your face.

Whoever you are!

And while most of the lying might be about doing her job–she is a spy after all–Danes managed to make me believe her character was attracted to the job in the first place for this precise reason.

This is well outside the normal approaches that Hollywood, or pretty much any mainstream security state narrative (particularly including the narrative pushed by “journalists”), which are basically all designed to accept the necessity of the security state itself. Not as a repository for the career arcs of the emotionally damaged, but, you know, to keep us free!

Whatever you want to say about the varying approaches to telling spy stories it has pretty much always come down to the same thing: In the end, you can trust the hero/heroine to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is as true of John Le Carre as it is of, say, Burn Notice.

Inside or outside, rogue or paragon, field agent or desk-bound, complicated or simple, deep character study or mind candy, atheist or true believer. Doesn’t matter. Spy stories in the West come down to this: You spend the story hoping the hero/heroine who is standing in for us had a good Sunday School teacher (the atheists, incidentally, tend to have the very best Sunday School teachers even if, as in the case of this show’s Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, they are almost always called something else) and in the end you go “whew, that sure was close.”

And, of course, a lot of that sort of thing does happen here.

But Danes’ character in the first season of Homeland is way past all that.

She’ll lie to get what she wants. If what she wants happens to coincide with what everybody else wants–with what we want and what her Sunday School teacher wants–then so much the better. (And, since this is hardly avant garde narrative or anything, she really does want what we want and, doubly “of course,” she’s the only one who is right–all standard stuff.) Danes, though, is the first actor I’ve seen to play this traditional role in such a way that her lies really are more about saving herself than saving the world.

In that sense, the bipolarity, however truthfully and convincingly portrayed, is a ruse, a macguffin even. Much easier for someone with a “condition” to tell both herself and everybody else (including us) that it’s okay for her to be more interested in saving herself than in saving anyone else (including us) if what she’s saving herself from–on our behalf!–is the bats in her belfry.

But, intentionally or not, this core of selfishness lies on a restless, seething bed of existential unease.

Because if Carrie Mathison is what we need to protect ourselves in the War on Terror–and, in Homeland, she is, finally, the one who protects us–then we aren’t protected at all. Or at least we aren’t protected by anything more tangible than what a real Sunday School teacher would call blind faith.

And that’s where Danes’ conviction and commitment to realism doubles down. There’s no line her character won’t cross to protect us…but only because there’s no line she won’t cross to protect herself. So God help us if this messed up woman is ever really wrong.

I mean, it’s okay if the last line of defense goes a little screwy when (for plot reasons only) she’s off her meds.

It’s another thing entirely to discover that she’s a bottomless well of need. Because if that really is the last line of defense, then we really are all screwed.

I’m guessing this kind of thing won’t be permitted to last, but, for now, I can’t wait for the fall DVD release of Season Two to see where the gatekeepers allowed her to take this.

[NOTE: I was less impressed than most people with Damian Lewis’ performance as the POW who might have been turned. His Manchurian Candidate is a long way second to Laurence Harvey’s, who I could actually imagine someone asking to run for Congress. As Lewis plays even his public side, Nicholas Brody is the kind of man political handlers hurl past Olympic sprinters to get away from. But Mandy Patinkin, as Danes’ wise old, seen-it-all handler, has made the role of a lifetime out of very standard stuff indeed. He’s so good at playing this stock character that he’s actually reinvented its boundaries. And Jamey Sheridan, as the Vice President, is completely convincing as a big league politician who makes it disturbingly easy to root for the terrorists.]