It's always heartening when a drama finds a way to hint at backstory without having someone just sit down and dictate the character notes at you.
There was a good example early in Homeland, a Showtime buy-in for Channel 4 that had advance word-ofmouth as “a more intelligent 24”. A flash-back intro had shown us Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent, in the field in Baghdad, trying to prevent the execution of an important source. She fails, and sets off a diplomatic incident in doing so, but before she’s dragged away by Iraqi security she gets one crucial piece of information off the condemned man. Flash forward 10 months and she’s late forwork at Langley. And as she dashes around her house gathering her stuff, she tugs her tights off and gives herself a quick flannel scrub between the legs. It’s a curiously intimate moment, a little embarrassing even, but, without being immediately explicable, it lets you know that this is a woman cutting corners to get by.
So is Carrie a woman to be relied on? Her boss doesn’t think so, which is tricky, because when an American PoW is rescued after eight years in captivity, Carrie appears to be the only woman in the room who has doubts. That’s because a piece of information that seemed meaningless for years has just snapped magnetically on to what appears to be its natural counterpart. Before her contact in Baghdad died, he’d whispered in Carrie’s ear that an American captive had been “turned”. So, while the rest of America is preparing to welcome a returning hero, Carrie is frantically wiring Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody’s house for surveillance, convinced that he may be a human IED.
The appeal of Homeland is that the evidence points both ways. As Brody, Damian Lewis is unnervingly affectless, though we have no way of knowing yet whether it’s trauma or some kind of brainwashing. His wife is nervous too, because when the call came through that her husband was still alive she was being vigorously consoled by one of Brody’s best friends. And Carrie, who gulps down an anti-psychotic before heading into work, is nicely played by Claire Danes so that you can’t be sure whether her anxiety has conjured up the conspiracy theory, or is legitimately caused by it. The smartness of the seriesmay have been a little overstated. You could hardly, after all, make a thriller that was less intelligent than 24. But so far its twists and revelations are expertly applied and its commitment to shades of grey – moral and emotional as well as narrative – is promising.
There’s ambiguity in Luck, too, Michael Mann and David Milch’s HBO series set on and around a California racetrack, though the uncertainty here is not always as precisely controlled. All closed world dramas require their creators to find a balance between deep-end immersion and paddling-pool tuition and Milch and Mann have bet big on a sink-or-swim strategy. Milch knows this world intimately (he owns racehorses himself) and he doesn’t seem over anxious that we might feel left out. When a character desperately shouts, “Will someone please tell me what’s happening”, towards the end, quite a few viewers will echo the sentiment. Still, it gleams with quality like a thoroughbred, from a cast that includes Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, to Mann’s loving detailing depiction of the stables and racetrack. I’ve watched the first episode twice and I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening, but the glamour and squalor of gambling, its hunger and its dreams are compellingly captured in a way that anyone could grasp. Some fine lines too. Asked about the racehorse he’s pretending to own for Hoffman’s paroled gangster, his chauffeur shrugs: “What do I know, Ace? All four of his legs reached the ground.” At least I wasn’t the only one without a clue.