In 'Homeland,' A Tale Of Trust, Loyalty, Family And Isolation Showtime's intriguing Homeland follows a freshly rescued prisoner of war and the CIA analyst who suspects he isn't what he appears to be.

In 'Homeland,' A Tale Of Trust, Loyalty, Family And Isolation

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison Showtime's Homeland. Kent Smith/Showtime hide caption

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Kent Smith/Showtime

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison Showtime's Homeland.

Kent Smith/Showtime

The hardest thing to do in a drama that revolves around two adversaries is to balance them so that they're both sympathetic and they're both problematic. That's rarely done as well as it's done in Showtime's Homeland, an exceptionally smart and blisteringly well-acted drama premiering Sunday night.

At the center of Homeland are CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, and U.S. soldier Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, whom you might know from Band Of Brothers or NBC's Life. Brody has just turned up in Afghanistan after eight years in captivity, and while he's being brought home a hero, a tantalizing crumb of intelligence makes Mathison suspect he might have returned as a potential terrorist. Her reputation is spotty and her friends are few, so her first step is to try to convince her one ally at work, a mentor named Saul (Mandy Patinkin), that she's right.

While she's off worrying about that, Brody has to readjust after eight years away from his wife (V's Morena Baccarin), his friends, and everything else. As it turns out, 2003 really was a long time ago.

The greatest danger with a series like this one, scheduled to run 12 episodes, is that because it hinges on such a fundamental central question — Is he a terrorist? — it will stall and fake and triple-deke and nothing will happen for the first 11 and three-quarters hours, because they're trying to save up for a big reveal. The structure of the first episode, however, suggests that isn't the plan. Information starts to come fairly quickly about both Carrie and Brody that pushes the intelligence story forward. (Perhaps that merciless ticking clock on the plot comes from the fact that Homeland is, perhaps surprisingly, from the producers of 24, a frequently controversial drama about fighting terrorism.)

Carrie and Brody are both interesting enough on their own that even when the international intrigue is sidelined, their stories are compelling. In particular, Baccarin's fine performance as Brody's wife Jess holds up her side of his family story, which grinds on whether he's secretly a bad guy or not. Because Carrie is an eccentric and Brody is a man of very few words after being gone so long, Jess is asked to carry a lot of the emotional weight of the first episode, and her story is probably the most immediately relatable in a purely personal sense: What if your husband came back after eight years away?

But most of all, Homeland relies on stunning performances from Lewis and especially from Claire Danes, who, at last, has shed every last atom of the likable, slightly awkward Angela Chase, the teenager she played in the deeply beloved My So-Called Life. Danes has done some fine work since then, particularly in HBO's Temple Grandin, but even there, her underlying sweetness and vulnerability were assets. Here, they're being actively and successfully subverted.

Very often, figures who are written as law enforcement outcasts and rebels are clearly better at their jobs than everyone else, to the point where they may drive their supervisors crazy, but they're always right. Here, it's easy to understand why Carrie isn't trusted. It's easy to understand why she isn't very well liked and why she can't just walk in, announce her concerns, and expect to be supported. From the opening shots of Carrie's bathroom mirror routine, Danes is fearless and unaffected, and even as you wonder whether Carrie might be right, the performance doesn't insist on her eventual redemption.

Is Carrie right or wrong? Is Brody a terrorist? The show doesn't promise a particular outcome, nor does it promise that either her suspicions are entirely on target or they're entirely unfounded. Eight years is a long time. A lot can happen. But if you're willing to sink into it, Homeland is by far the most promising new drama series of the fall.