Homeland: Beyond the call of duty

The Golden Globe-winning spy thriller Homeland is coming to Channel 4. Its creators explain why it's more John le Carré than Jack Bauer

Few shows can pull of the difficult trick of executing a near flawless first season. Homeland, the acclaimed US spy drama, which starts on Channel 4 next month, is one of them. The twisty thriller, which stars Claire Danes as an on-the-edge CIA agent struggling to hide her bipolar condition and Damian Lewis as the returning war hero she suspects may be a terrorist plant, won widespread praise in America with the Los Angeles Times calling it "politically resonant, emotionally wrenching and plain old thrilling to watch" and The New Yorker branding it the "standout drama of the new season". At this month's Golden Globes it won best actress and best television drama, the latter award coming at the expense of much-hyped series such as Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.

"We're still stunned by how well the show has been received," says Howard Gordon, who co-created Homeland with fellow 24 writer, Alex Gansa. "We knew it was good and that we had been lucky to get a great cast and a tremendous group of writers but we were never sure what the response would be because there was always a feeling that the country might be suffering from terrorism fatigue, that the last thing they would want to watch was a drama on this subject."

From the beginning, Homeland was marked out by its willingness to take risks. Taking as their starting point the acclaimed Israeli drama Hatufim, which followed a group of prisoners of war returning to family life, Gansa and Gordon spun a tale of conspiracy and paranoia that turns the thinking behind 24 on its head.

Where Jack Bauer's world was neatly divided into good and evil, a place where torture was justified in the name of the free world and heroism defined by the ability to laugh off pain, Homeland is predicated on the notion that trauma doesn't disappear, that good people can commit terrible acts, that there are no easy answers, no right side to pick.

"What we really wanted to do was tell a great spy novel on TV, a Graham Greene, John le Carré type story," says Gansa. "The sort of tale that was interesting and grey and compelling."

Greene and le Carré are pretty heady names to invoke but what allows Gansa and Gordon the right to do so is that Homeland is an unusually grown-up drama filled with half-heard conversations, subtle betrayals and the sort of plot twists that work because they feel true to the characters created.

"I think the thing about working on cable is we've been liberated from the conventional aspects of the thriller," says Gansa. "In particular, the idea that everything the hero does is good and everything the villain does is bad. It's not even always clear who the hero or villain might be."

It's certainly a world apart from 24 with its ticking clock and two-dimensional evil. Indeed, it's been labelled "24 for adults", a phrase that makes Gansa and Gordon laugh.

"Well, the whole structure of 24 was somewhat absurd, this idea that you have only 24 hours to save the world and that all this significant stuff could happen in that timeframe," says Gordon, who ran the show between 2006 and 2009. "It was built on hyper-realism."

What of the suggestions that 24 is a right-wing take on terrorist threat while Homeland approaches the same problem from a liberal or left-wing angle? Gordon, who describes himself as "kind of apolitical" is diplomatic. "They are shows written in a very different time," he says. "We live in a much more complex world with a new set of problems and a changing perspective. We have to write from that reality."

How close is Homeland to the Israeli original? "It's a significant departure," says Gordon. "The original show is solely about the prisoners of war and their return to their families. It's about how isolated these people who have been out of society feel. We took that as one strand and then added the thriller element."

Gansa interrupts. "We always knew that we wanted Homeland to be a thriller but what was interesting was the idea that you could tell a high-octane psychological thriller and also delve into the personal world of a family drama."

Crucially, in contrast to the last attempt at creating a grown-up spy drama, AMC's Rubicon, which aired on BBC4 last year, Homeland manages not to get bogged down in misdirection. Where the latter show seemed to be all twist and no resolution, Homeland boils down to one simple question: Is Carrie Mathison correct to believe that Sgt Nicholas Brody is a terrorist spy?

It's a testament to Damian Lewis's sympathetic but spiky performance that not only is the audience as unsure as the increasingly paranoid Carrie about the returning hero's motives, we also desperately hope he is who, and what, he claims to be.

"We looked long and hard at many actors before casting Brody," says Ganza. "Damian stood out not just because of Band of Brothers [where he played the upright Major Richard Winters] but because we'd seen Keane where he played a paranoid schizophrenic looking for his lost child. For the first 35 minutes of that film, he was pretty much the only person on screen and he was so compelling that we began to really consider him. There seemed a connection between the two characters."

The connection was damage. Like the titular Keane, Lewis's Brody is haunted by his captivity. Hailed as a hero, he feels increasingly unable to adjust to family life. Like Danes's Carrie he is desperate to make connections but unsure how to even begin.

And Carrie's dislocation is crucial to the show's uneasy dynamic. We might not trust Brody but we're equally unsure about the stability of the agent who orders him put under covert watch. "It was important to us that the main voice would be someone who would be the last person people in power would listen to, we wanted them to be this almost Chicken Little voice of paranoia, fear or caution, depending on how you look at it," says Gordon of the decision to make their lead a young, bipolar female agent. "We decided, well, they might listen to a woman less, a young woman in particular, and all the more so if that woman was hiding the fact that she's bipolar so that her behaviour is sometimes erratic. Carrie's record is extraordinary on one hand and yet spotty on the other and that adds an important dynamic."

More importantly, the bipolar condition, which Gansa and Gordon say they researched assiduously, never feels like an unsubtle plot device, thanks to an extraordinary, subtle performance from Danes who shows us both why Carrie is so good at her job and why she appears compelled to sabotage that success. Her Carrie is, as website The Awl adeptly put it, "a difficult, loud, excessively blunt mess of a person."

In other words, she's human. It's a humanity that both underpins the show and holds the key to its success. For Homeland is not a drama about good versus evil but rather a subtle look at the good and evil that we do, and the consequences, both big and small, that others pay for every careless act.

'Homeland' starts in mid-February on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride