DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
The Showtime series "Homeland," after its highly acclaimed first season, ended up sweeping the Emmy awards Sunday, giving the Showtime network its first-ever win for outstanding drama series. It also won Emmys for writing and for its stars, Damian Lewis and Claire Danes. The series returns this weekend, as does another Showtime drama series, "Dexter," which stars Michael C. Hall.
Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Right now, as we near the end of the 2012 fall TV premiere week, there's a tendency for a sense of weariness to set in. So many of the new TV series are so bad this year, and not one of them is outstanding. It tends to get a little depressing.
But then you think about the rich bounty of returning series and how good television drama has gotten lately, and there's cause to rejoice all over again.
AMC's "Man Men" and FX's "Justified," which are on hiatus, had wonderful years. CBS' "The Good Wife" is just about to start up again with another solid season, and new episodes of AMC's "The Walking Dead" are just around the corner. AMC's "Breaking Bad" just served up a stunner of a midseason finale to keep us spinning for a while. And now, this Sunday, we get the returns of "Homeland" and "Dexter" on Showtime.
What a golden age this is, and how strange it is that three of these shows - "Breaking Bad," "Dexter" and "Homeland" - all are playing variations on the same overall theme.
The theme goes all the way back to "The Fugitive" in the 1960s: Our hero is pursued, persistently and for years, by an investigator who keeps getting closer and closer. In "The Fugitive," David Janssen's Richard Kimble was innocent. The modern wrinkle in today's dramas is that the people being pursued are guilty.
On "Breaking Bad," Bryan Cranston's Walter White really is a murderous meth dealer. On "Dexter," Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan really is a serial killer, specializing in murdering other serial killers. And on "Homeland," Damien Lewis' Nicholas Brody really is what CIA agent Carrie Mathison - played by Claire Danes - suspects he is: a sleeper agent working for a Middle Eastern terrorist.
For each of the investigators in these shows, the hunt is as personal as it gets. On "Breaking Bad," Walter White has been tracked for years by his own brother-in-law, a DEA agent who just discovered the clue that identifies Walter as the bad guy he's been hunting. And on "Dexter," the title character was caught in the act, at the end of last season by a police lieutenant, his own sister, Debra, played by Jennifer Carpenter. She watched Dexter plunge a sword into the bound-in-plastic body of the so-called Doomsday Killer, and this season begins, we witness her understandably freaked-out reaction.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEXTER")
JENNIFER CARPENTER: (as Debra Morgan) Talk to me.
MICHAEL C. HALL: (as Dexter Morgan) Would you lower gun, please? I came to do one last forensic sweep, like you ask me to do, and Travis was here. He came at me with his sword. I fought him off. I knocked him out.
CARPENTER: (as Debra Morgan) How did he end up wrapped in plastic on the altar?
HALL: (as Dexter Morgan) I snapped.
CARPENTER: (as Debra Morgan) You snapped? (beep) does that mean?
BIANCULLI: I'd like to report that after all this time, the way Debra reacts and how Dexter responds are dramatically satisfying, but they're not. I've seen the first three episodes of this new seventh season, and the program, this year, doesn't seem reinvigorated or redefined. It seems - for now, at least - a little lost.
"Homeland" is exactly the opposite. Here's a show that managed to serve up one surprise after another last season. It also presented two leading performances that were so instantly and intensely involving - written and acted with equal brilliance - that your loyalties, as a viewer, were completely torn. You eventually knew Carrie was right and rooted for her to stop Brody's terrorist plot, but you empathized with Brody, too. Somehow, the first season ended with both of them still standing, but barely.
For season two, we pick up the action six months later. Carrie, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with shock therapy, was summarily dismissed by the CIA, and she's been living a quiet life teaching English to foreign students and living with her father and sister. Brody's fate, I'll leave for viewers to discover. But one night, Carrie gets a phone call from her old CIA boss, Saul, out of the blue. You can tell, just from Carrie's tone, that the call upsets her as much as it surprises her.
Mandy Patinkin plays Saul. Claire Danes plays Carrie, and she's astoundingly good.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")
MANDY PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Hello?
CLAIRE DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Saul, it's me.
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Carrie. Thanks for getting back.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm guessing this isn't a social call.
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) No.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) What's going on?
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I can't talk. We're on an open line. But we need your help. I know. I hate myself for even asking.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Well, can't it wait until tomorrow?
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I'm afraid not. David Estes is sitting outside your house right now.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Well, tonight is Thursday. I cook dinner for the family on Thursdays. I'm making vegetable lasagna with vegetables I picked this morning from the garden. Don't make me talk to him, Saul. I don't ever want to see him again. I've put all of that away.
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Please, Carrie.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) God, why are you doing this to me?
BIANCULLI: Basically, he is doing this to her because she's the only one who can help, and because it gets Carrie back into the thick of things, which is where we need her if "Homeland" is going to deliver another great year. And based on the first two episodes, it is.
The new season of Homeland opens with an attack on an American embassy and seems so current, it's almost like peeking into the future. Writer-producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon have given us the most topical and meaningful drama on television and populated it with some of the medium's very best actors. "Dexter" may have strayed off course, but "Homeland," like "Breaking Bad," knows exactly what it's doing.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.