The spy thriller is a popular genre. But the real spy world is a shadowy place crammed with minutiae and ruled by routine, with about as many thrills as the library. James Bond or Jack Bauer would go crazy.
CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is already crazy in Showtime's Homeland, one of the three or four best new series this season, secretly taking antipsychotic pills that her sister steals from their father, who suffers from the same mysterious condition.
Insanity being a non-qualifier for tough government agents making life-and-death decisions, she keeps her condition hidden from her colleagues. She also keeps it under wraps that she has evidence that the newly repatriated Iraq prisoner of war is no hero, but a brainwashed terrorist, and that she and some sketchy colleagues are constantly monitoring his house with illegal surveillance equipment.
It would take an actress as good as Claire Danes to pull all this off, and she does it beautifully in Homeland, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., after the season premiere of another fabulous Showtime series, Dexter. As always on premium cable, both shows will be repeated many times as the week progresses.
Danes plays a woman hanging by a thread, glued every minute she's at home to the frequently embarrassing domestic scenes playing on her computer directly from the home of the maybe-terrorist, maybe-hero.
There is a hint of the paranoia and eavesdropper's guilt evinced so splendidly by Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974). Homeland shares the overpowering tenseness. But Danes, strangely beautiful with her big nose, pointed chin, huge teeth and elastic eyes that can pop wider than anything Zooey Deschanel achieves, seems much more of this world than Hackman's Harry Caul.
"Claire Danes was our first choice from the moment we sat down to write the pilot," executive producer Howard Gordon says in some Showtime press materials. "We even named the character 'Claire' in our first draft."
Damian Lewis, so captivating in the underappreciated NBC series Life a couple of years ago, is Sgt. Nicholas Brody, tormented by eight years of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the notorious Abu Nazir. We see bits of it in flashbacks that thoroughly contradict Brody's public narrative of his time in prison. His behavior in captivity was understandable, but hardly heroic.
Morena Baccarin, the gorgeous, long-necked alien from V, elegantly plays Brody's wife, Jessica. This being Showtime, sci-fi fanboys will get to see a lot more of Baccarin than her neck. Because of the show's general illicit, voyeuristic vibe, however, most of Homeland's nudity is, purposefully, more unsettling than arousing.
The series approaches the post-9/11 antiterrorism battle from the opposite direction of 24, on which Gordon was also one of the major creative executives. Action agent Bauer's outlandish activities created such a nerve overload that it was sometimes necessary to pause the show just to catch your breath. The stifling tension of Homeland builds quietly, with only the occasional nick-of-time success (or failure) of its principals, which, in the first three episodes, at least, include exactly two official government operatives.
Except for her longtime CIA mentor and confidant, an outlier analyst played sympathetically by Mandy Patinkin, nobody in the government knows a thing about Carrie's suspicions. The official line, pushed ruthlessly by federal authorities, who get the same disapproving, hairy eyeball that they got in 24, is that, no matter what, Brody needs to play a sort of living recruitment poster, the heroic face of the noble and necessary Iraqi war.
As always in spy stuff, truth and obfuscation are at the heart of Homeland, examined specifically and intriguingly in the show's third episode through the eyes of Brody's 16-year-old daughter (the convincingly aloof Morgan Saylor). What should she say in the big nationally televised interview about her topsy-turvy family life, she wonders aloud to her stoner friends while toking up in the secret meeting place.
How about the truth, one of them asks.
"The truth would be interesting," she muses.
She gets a more sophisticated response from her dad: "I'm not going to lie, but I'm not going to tell the truth, either."
It's no lie to say you don't get this sort of stylish and challenging stuff very frequently on TV, adult subject matter treated maturely in a series that makes you squirm and think.
10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or email@example.com.