by Senior National Security Producer Suzanne Kelly
The slogan is "Sunday nights just got dangerous," which might help explain why Showtime is making a killing with the new espionage drama "Homeland" from "24" executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon.
The psychological thriller follows the homecoming of Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) after being an al Qaeda prisoner for eight years. But CIA Officer Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) follows a hunch and tries to determine whether the returning hero has actually been "turned" and is planning to carry out an act of terror at home on behalf of the terrorist organization.
Critics are raving about it. Newsweek calls it "the most addictive show of the season". Showtime has renewed for season two. "Homeland" executive producer Alex Gansa is pretty happy about that, too, though speaking on his cell phone from a trailer on the set of the Fox lot, he admits that at first he was a little worried about creating another "war" show.
"That was always the concern. Even when we were first approached about the idea, we wondered, 'Do viewers have "war on terror" fatigue?'" said Gansa.
Apparently, the answer is no. Gansa thinks he knows why.
"We were convinced that if you told a compelling story about character, we would succeed," said Gansa.
In early May, just as the pilot was being shot, the CIA's hand in real-life events seemed to offer them a little more hope that the show might be a success.
"We had just finished shooting the pilot when (Osama) bin Laden was found and killed, and we looked at each other and said, 'How does it affect us?'" said Gansa, who described his partner, Howard Gordon as seeing the positive side of the energy around that event.
"Howard is the ultimate Pollyanna, which is his nicest quality. The country had endured so much bad news and in a way that was such a huge victory. I think it energized the (Central Intelligence) Agency and the special forces. It was such a big deal to finally get that guy, that the country could take a collective sigh of relief."
Like many Hollywood success stories, "Homeland" prides itself on doing its homework, and worked with a liaison office within the Central Intelligence Agency and sent some of the cast and crew to CIA headquarters to get a feel for the place. They did their homework on some of the other important themes that play a role in the show as well.
"We did research on many fronts, on what it's been like for veterans to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, what it's like to reintegrate into society, and how difficult it is to sort of fit back into a non-combat life," said Gansa. "For Brody, if he's a terrorist, that's one thing, but if he was a guy who is coming back and is having a tough time, we wanted to show that, too."
Oh, and that lead CIA Officer played by Danes, is far from perfect. In fact, the writers have made her bipolar, another intriguing facet of the show that the producers felt they could tackle easier, once they knew where the series would ultimately air.
"We researched her illness to understand it," said Gansa. "When we first developed the show, our lead character was not bipolar, and you knew whether Brody was good or bad, but once we knew we could do it on pay cable for Showtime, we knew we could become much more nuanced. We knew we could make our lead character unreliable. That struck us as a very rich vein of storytelling."
What seems to be winning over critics is the combination of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Lewis and Danes are joined onscreen by Mandy Patinkin, who plays an old CIA hand who has been through just about everything and understands the importance of navigating agency politics as much as navigating enemy lines, and Morena Baccarin, who does a brilliant job playing Sgt. Brody's wife.
Behind the scenes are a list of professionals who have enjoyed equal success on prior shows: executive producer Gideon Raff, who was the creator of the Israeli series the show is based on; Michael Cuesta, the executive producer who directed the pilot; executive producers Avi Nir and Ran Telem; co-executive producers Chip Johannessen and Alex Cary; and consulting producers Meredith Stiehm and Henry Bromell Many of them had a role in "24" as well, but Gansa insists this is very different from the famous Jack Bauer drama.
"I would view '24' as a muscular response to 9/11. It's an action thriller. This can be characterized as much more of a psychological thriller, but hopefully it has the same energy." said Gansa.