Director Michael Cuesta, left, speaks with series star Mandy Patinkin… (Ronen Akerman / Showtime )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a well-manicured park on a balmy North Carolina morning, Nicholas Brody is losing his cool.
The American POW-turned-terrorist from the Showtime series "Homeland," played by Damian Lewis, is meeting with a representative of archterrorist Abu Nazir. With each take, Brody's resentment toward the shadowy forces manipulating him creeps upward.
"And who are 'THEY' anyway?" Lewis spits, his head trembling with anger. At one point, the disgust has become so palpable that the actor himself seems to feel it: He lets go a quick but loud admonition to an assistant director who has been talking during takes. The moment will later prompt the crew to discuss (among themselves) the infamous Christian Bale episode on the set of "Terminator Salvation."
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Lewis has a resolute focus on set — in a shoot that afternoon he'll pilot a rigged SUV through downtown traffic while offering a nuanced performance — that embodies the show's fiery spirit. Though "Homeland" is an entertaining thriller, it's still deadly serious; while a hit (nearly 2 million viewers tuned in to the Season 1 finale in December), it also asks meaningful political and moral questions.
As it kicks off its second season Sept. 23, the series about weighty subjects like war, secrecy and loyalty has more juice than perhaps any other returning drama. But as a visit to the set suggests, creating a show that's both cerebral and fun isn't easy.
And it won't get any easier this go-round, when the series must sustain tension even though the central mystery of Brody's allegiance has been revealed. Indeed, much of the show's appeal the first season came from a pedal-to-metal series of cliffhangers. The writers aim for that this year too but with a counter-intuitive approach.
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"Our first narrative priority this season is to throttle down," said show runner Alex Gansa, who executive produces the show with former "24" show runner Howard Gordon. "We can't start the season at such a heightened rate that it reaches an insane level by Episode 4 or 5."
Building a series around a mentally unstable CIA agent was always going to be risky, even in the wide-leeway world of cable television. Centering it on an American soldier who is planning the unthinkable was downright lunatic. Perhaps only "Breaking Bad" would turn someone so problematic into a main character, and even Walt White never plotted to bring down the U.S. government on behalf of Islamofascism.
If you haven't kept up with cable's latest sensation, "Homeland," loosely adapted from an Israeli drama (that program's Gideon Raff is also an executive producer here), follows the brilliant but bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes, who, like Lewis, is nominated for an Emmy). Carrie suspects Brody is a terrorist. But aside from her paternal CIA mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), she can't get any of her colleagues to believe her.
Meanwhile, Brody is struggling to readjust to life with his wife and kids while also taking covert orders from Abu (Navid Negahban) for a massive suicide plot. His years as a captor in the Middle East have made him see American militarism from the other side, and he's consumed by rage over what drone strikes did to Abu Nazir's young son, to whom he had grown close. Brody and Carrie also begin a complicated professional dynamic that turns romantic, then falls apart.
The entire show can be viewed, with surprisingly little muscle strain, as a parable for the world wrought by Sept. 11, where the issue of who is an enemy — and, indeed, how to deal with the very uncertainty of the question — became paramount. Lewis, who is British, goes a step further, seeing an embattled Carrie as a symbol for a besieged U.S. economy. The show has even resonated in the White House, where President Obama is said to have watched and liked it.
The first season ended with several cliffhangers. Brody was revealed to be a terrorist but decided not to blow himself up and instead run for office, presumably to subvert the system from within. Having been fired from the agency, Carrie was last seen about to undergo an extreme form of electroshock therapy, going under just as she remembered a critical piece of information. There was no reveal on an apparent CIA mole who had been passing information to Nazir.
This season begins six months after the last one left off. Carrie is attempting to start a new life outside the CIA, while Brody has made good on his bid for Congress. Both seem relatively happy. The idyll, needless to say, doesn't last.
The show's actors acknowledge that they've found it trickier to create subtlety now that the rules have been laid down. "Everything is so much more expressive this year that it can become melodramatic," said Lewis, who also played a U.S. soldier in the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers." "Initially, it was a little disconcerting."