Monday, March 14, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


It started with a birthday present. One of my daughters gave me, in November of last year, a set of DVDs of the first season of the American series Homeland, which we had not seen when it was first shown on pay TV (to which we do not subscribe anyway). The first season – like all that followed it - consisted of 12 episodes. Each episode was one American commercial TV hour – that is, about 50 minutes. Therefore each season was about 10 hours long.
We watched the season with interest and pleasure – though sometimes with mixed feelings. So much so that when, after about four evenings, we’d got through the lot, my wife made a trip to the Warehouse and found, going cheap, the second and third seasons.  She snapped them up and we consumed them in about eight evenings. These three seasons first screened in America in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Was the fourth season, which screened in America in 2014, yet available on DVD? It was. We bought it at full price, we consumed it over another four evenings, and so we have so far seen 40 hours worth of Homeland.
A fifth season screened in America late in 2015 but is as yet unavailable on DVD; and a sixth season is in the works. This means that Homeland will eventually sprawl over 60 hours, and of course there is always the possibility that the series will be signed up yet again and continue even after that.
It’s not my intention to provide “spoilers”, so I will make only a few comments on plot and on our occasional refusal to suspend disbelief. Homeland is essentially a sophisticated spy story. Its main character, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes, who is also one of the show’s producers) is a CIA operative. The whole concept is obviously attuned to a post-9/11 America, jittery about Muslim terrorists. The first two seasons focus on the return to America of a U.S. marine Nicholas Brody (played with a convincing American accent by English actor Damian Lewis), who has been imprisoned for years by an Islamicist terrorist network. Publicly he is feted as an all-American hero. Privately, the CIA woman Carrie Mathison suspects he may have been “turned” by his captors and may be planning terrorist activity in the USA. Whether this is or is not the case is the substance of the first two seasons of Homeland, complete with much detail on Nicholas Brody’s American wife and family and with the third major character in the story being Carrie Mathison’s CIA superior and mentor Saul Berenson (played by third-billed Mandy Patinkin).
Apart from some flashbacks, the first two seasons take place in the USA, mainly in Washington and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In the third season, however, with some radical changes of focus in the storyline, much of it is set in Venezuela, Iraq and Iran. Nicholas Brody is absent from much of Season 3 for various reasons, and (apart from a brief cameo appearance in Season 4) disappears completely from Homeland at the season finale. Nearly all of Season 4 is set in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson now doing battle with the Taliban. Another CIA character becomes prominent in the series, Peter Quinn (played, again with an impeccable American accent, by another English actor Rupert Friend). Quinn acts as a kind of conscience and voice of reason when Carrie Mathison suggests something too wild, dangerous or unethical.
I hasten to note that my thin narrative summary misses out most of the twists, surprises, betrayals, reversals, spectacular terrorist activity and so forth with which so much of the series is concerned.
Of course we would not be watching Homeland if we did not think it was excellent television, but here come our misgivings.
Carrie Mathison is severely bipolar (or as Kay Redfield Jamison and I still prefer to say, manic-depressive), with a touch of psychosis. Much of the series tension is supposed to rely on the fact that, despite her logical and trained mind, she is so unpredictable and whacky that she sometimes does things that could compromise her own safety or that of other people. Claire Danes often plays the role with extreme gestures and an anguished voice and eyes wide and staring to suggest incipient madness. And frequently our disbelief refused to be suspended as we came to the conclusion that such a person would probably have never been hired by the CIA in the first place. Worse, there are long stretches of each series in which the writers conveniently forget this side of her character, so that she can advance the story by behaving logically and heroically.
By contrast with Clare Danes, however, Damian Lewis often underplays his role, with stiff and emotionless face and with his lips pursed as if he is just about to blow a bugle.
Quite troubling (though doubtless intentional) is the moral ambiguity of Carrie Mathison’s character, even if one accepts – as Americans probably do - that the safety of the USA is always the most important consideration in the world. Carrie does things (or orders things) that would be regarded as war crimes by most of the world’s courts. One of our teenage daughters was loud in denouncing some of Carrie’s sexual activities, especially in Season 4 when she seduces a naïve and gullible young Pakistani medical student simply to get information out of him.
I could add more objections, but they are not the purpose of this week’s sermon.
You see, when the first two seasons screened in the USA, Homeland was universally praised by the critics and both the series and the leading actors won numerous awards.  But the third series drew many raspberries, with most critics now noting how contrived and repetitive its storylines became. I noticed myself that there was a dropping off in quality. There were long sequences involving Nicholas Brody’s wife and troubled teenage daughter, which seemed to be so much padding to spin it all out. There was a revival of quality in the fourth series, with what is really a completely different narrative. But one is always aware that when you have a long, long series to watch, there will be some illogicalities, dead moments, uninteresting material and so forth.
This is a judgment based on watching 40 hours of Homeland.
Then this thought occurs to me.
If you performed all four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, it would take you a mere 15 hours.
Let’s give three hours for the performance of each play in Shakespeare’s “Henriad” (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V) and you have only 12 hours. Let’s add to these the rest of his sequence of history plays – Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three, Richard III and (stretching it to pretend it’s really Shakespeare’s) Henry VIII. You now have 27 hours of performance. Let’s go really crazy and add his King John (which is quite unconnected with the guy’s other history plays) and you still have only 30 hours. That’s right – 30 hours to perform, uncut, all of Shakespeare’s history plays back-to-back.
If we ask scriptwriters to come up with something longer than all of Shakespeare’s history plays and Wagner’s Ring cycle combined, we are expecting more than the most heroic scriptwriters can achieve. Of course the quality of Homeland goes up and down. It is too long not to do otherwise. And there’s no great music or blank verse to sweep us along.

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