Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in "Homeland." (Kent Smith / Showtime )
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Early in the new season of "Homeland," which premieres Sunday on Showtime, Saul Berenson sits with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand and a defeated look on his face.
"I'm not temperamentally suited to the job," says the veteran intelligence officer played by Mandy Patinkin, who finds himself ill at ease in his new role as acting director of the CIA.
Alex Gansa, "Homeland's" creator, show runner and — in the wake of a Season 2 backlash that saw critics reject the Emmy-winning terrorism drama as emphatically as they'd once embraced it — most public defender, knows the feeling all too well.
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"I so relate to Saul," he says at D.C.'s tony Hay-Adams Hotel.
Unlike some other TV creators of his caliber, Gansa, formerly a producer on "Entourage" and "24," does not summarily dismiss the criticisms leveled at his show. Instead, he speaks with a disarming level of candor about the challenges of overseeing such an intensely scrutinized program.
Co-created by Howard Gordon and loosely based on the Israeli drama "Hatufim," "Homeland" was anointed TV's Next Great Show when it premiered in 2011. Viewers and critics alike were captivated by the strange romance between brilliant but bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Marine-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody. "Homeland" swept last year's Emmys, where it was named outstanding drama series and leads Damian Lewis and Claire Danes won their respective categories.
As Showtime's highest-rated freshman series, "Homeland" represented a thorough creative and commercial triumph for the network, one which finally enabled it to chip away at HBO's decades-old dominance in the prestige-TV game.
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Then came the second season.
In its sophomore outing, "Homeland" essentially reversed the narrative trajectory of the first season. Brody, a freshly elected congressman, rejects his jihadist beliefs and aligns with the CIA, only to be framed as the mastermind of a surprise attack on agency headquarters. The pole shift required some extravagant plot twists — including, perhaps most infamously, an assassination carried out via a hacked pacemaker.
Critics hammered the "Homeland" writing staff over the supposed lapses in plausibility. Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur called the season "meandering, maddening, and unintentionally funny," while Salon's Willa Paskin settled on "crazy, bananas, bonkers, idiotic, insane, stupid, contrived, deranged."
Yet as the backlash grew to a fever pitch, so did the ratings. An average of 6.2 million viewers tuned in across various platforms last year, representing a 43% increase over Season 1. Surely not all of them were hate-watching.
Danes, who took her second Emmy for the role Sept. 22, is unfazed by the uproar. "A second effort is always going to be held to task much more rigorously," she says via telephone from Charlotte, N.C., where the series is filmed. "I think people's expectations were incredibly high."
But Gansa is not so blithe. "I feel exactly the same way about the acclaim of Season 1 that I feel about the backlash of Season 2 and that is some of it was deserved and some of it wasn't," he says, having just returned from a private tour of the (still very much intact) CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Later that evening, he'll attend a splashy premiere party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art attended by, among others, Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. Even on a day when the nation teeters on the brink of intervention in Syria, Washington's elite are eager to bask in the "Homeland" limelight — evidence, perhaps, that the show has yet to truly jump the shark.
Although Gansa is willing to concede that Season 2 had its "wobbly moments" (for the record, he thinks the season's weakest episode was "A Gettysburg Address"), he remains wary of recap culture. "It's hard to take every episode and analyze it on its own merits, because it's a chapter in an ongoing story," he says. "The way these shows are picked apart and analyzed now is so crazy."
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What some of the naysayers also seem to have forgotten — or conveniently ignored — is that from the outset, the show required viewers to suspend a generous amount of disbelief, as Gansa readily admits: "Start with the premise: a bipolar CIA agent and a Marine who's been turned in captivity. I mean those are fairly implausible ideas to begin with, but they're dramatic."
The backlash was also in a perverse way hugely flattering; after all, it meant viewers were passionate about the material. "It's a bit like soccer fans at home," says Lewis, a Brit. "If your manager makes a bad call during a match or a player leaves, they feel betrayal keenly, and TV fans are the same way."