“Homeland” is the new “The Wire”

The very very good tv critic Alyssa Rosenberg celebrates Homeland‘s Emmy rampage last night in light of the show’s real-world, current-events relevance, something the other shows lack. That’s true as far as it gets you, which isn’t very. I’ve been saying for tedious years now that the reason The Wire has come to be regarded as the best show of the New Golden Age over, say, The Sopranos is because everything The Wire has to say, it actually says. On both a thematic and a narrative level, The Wire is about the failure of American government and law enforcement. Since many or even most critics writing for mainstream publications use allegory as the great legitimizer for genre art, this is catnip. You don’t even need to do the high-school English-essay amount of interpretation necessary to figure out whether the zombies represent consumerism or the amphibious monster represents American intervention on the Korean peninsula or whatever — all you need to know is how you feel about the War on Drugs, compare it to how David Simon feels about the War on Drugs, and call it a day. I realize I’m being reductive and unfair, there’s more to The Wire than an editorial cartoon, there’s breathtaking breadth and (the final season aside) depth to what he and Ed Burns did there, but yeah, pretty much that’s what’s going on.

Homeland, to its credit, is a much weirder show than The Wire — things happen that don’t need to happen, that communicate on a level deeper and more inscrutable than the immediate needs of the plot or the politics — and weirdness is where greatness lies. I don’t think greatness lies in condemning our army of flying killer robots or the ubiquitous surveillance state, necessarily. I think bravery lies there, for sure, even just in terms of the personal standing of the cast and crew; think of how many people in the Emmy room last night have done volunteer stuff for the Obama campaign, and then think of well-deserved teeth-grinding contempt in which Homeland holds the Obama drone-strike campaign, for example. But I think we get into trouble if we applaud art for echoing our current-day politics because it lets us off the hook.

To me, as ameliorative and bracing as Homeland‘s critique of Terror War is (it is after all a point of view I fully share, urgently share even, given my Damascene conversion years back), it comes much more alive when connecting the workaday lies we tell our loved ones every day, the secrets we keep from them, and the lies and secrets that end up getting people killed. It’s about cultivating deception as a habit of thought, and the short distance between cutting people out of your personal reality and a willingness to create a reality without them in it at all. Watching Carrie and Brody conduct their self-destructive secret lives while putting up a front to those who care for them is the meat of the show, for me, not the op-ed stuff.

So that’s why I’m not happy that Homeland beat Mad Men or Breaking Bad, or maybe even Game of Thrones — on an apples-to-apples basis those shows have more meat (to mix my food metaphors) even if no scenes take place in CIA headquarters. They also didn’t take a nosedive in the final third of the season and reveal an inherent structural limitation that would’ve left them better off as miniseries than as ongoing serials, and making the Vice President an asshole can’t get you past that either.

2 Responses to “Homeland” is the new “The Wire”

  1. Bobo says:

    I’m glad to hear this point of view expressed. I agree that Homeland’s apparent topicality is what gave it the edge with Emmy voters.

    Well, that and its novelty: on some level it’s attractive just because it is new. And because it’s only aired one season, and a very weird season, and a season that as you alluded to had certain structural quirks that cast a few doubts about the show’s creative longevity–it’s almost impossible to yet say what the show even is. Voters now know what BB and GoT and MM are, and what they are saying–or choosing not to say–about who WE are; I feel like voting for Homeland, as good as the show is, was a way for Emmy voters to dodge really making a choice about what a “Best Series” is, or what a “Best Series” should be. But perhaps Season 2 will be so good I’ll eat my words.

  2. [...] Episode One * Season One, Episodes 2-5 * Season One, Episodes 6-9 * Season One, Episodes 10-12 * Homeland is the new The Wire: thoughts on allegory and topicality in fiction * Homeland Season Two Cheat Sheet * Season Two, Episode One: “The Smile” * Season Two, [...]