Starting eleven and up through two years ago, there was a show called 24, and, despite its occasionally icky neoconservative overtones, I enjoyed it. Watched all eight seasons of it. I watched for Kiefer Sutherland's explosive performance as counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, for its clever real-time gimmick, and I watched for its sheer, unadulterated cartoonishness.
Because of its violent, "mature" trappings, it wasn't called out on this as often as it probably should have been – even winning the best drama Emmy one surreal year – but it existed in a comic book universe where the leaders of various terrorist outfits almost always eventually got in on the action and mixed it up with Jack Bauer hand-to-hand like video game bosses, the depiction of technology and hacking frequently dipped into light science fiction, and the stakes were always comically high, with multiple presidents getting offed and bioweapons being released and, at one point, Los Angeles getting nuked. Mind you, I say this not out of scorn, but out of admiration for an unpretentious show that knew exactly what it was and didn't front. 24 was a Saturday morning cartoon for grown ups and totally comfortable being just that.
Then, one year ago, former 24 writers and producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon created a new show about counterterrorism, one that promised to be the Manchurian Candidate/The Conversation answer to 24's Saturday morning cartoon. It was a patient, subtle show, light on action, heavy on observation and detective work, with infinitely more modest (and thus arguably more believable and frightening) stakes. It took its time and played it cool, with arguably the most heart-pounding scene of the entire first season, in the episode "The Weekend," being a simple conversation wherein the show's protagonist frankly confronted a possible terrorist with her suspicions.
It was called Homeland, and it was a great season of television. I even recall a review or two saying it was doing for the war on terror what The Wire did for the war on drugs.
And now, after the utterly preposterous tenth episode of season 2, it's official: Nope. If The Wire had been written in this spirit, season 3 would have ended with McNulty and company racing to catch Stringer Bell before he launched his nefarious plan to hook all of Baltimore on dope by lacing it into the water supply, which he's gained access to by kidnapping the governor of Maryland's daughter. R.I.P subtle Homeland of season 1. Date of death, December 2nd, 2012. All hail 24 2.
Extremely silly spoilers ahead.
The nonsense starts ten minutes in when terrorist boss Abu Nazir, whose plot to detonate a trunk of C-4 in the midst of an airbase of soldiers was foiled last week, moves on to plan B: Personally ram Carrie Mathison's car with a truck in the middle of D.C. in broad daylight, haul her out of the wreckage, drive her to his secret terrorist warehouse, then call Nicholas Brody and threaten to kill Carrie unless Brody gets Vice President Walden's pacemaker serial number so Nazir's hacker can kill Walden by emailing a heart attack to him. The plan is totally successful.
Where the fuck to begin? I suppose we could start with how dumb the broad-daylight-in-a-major-city-car-ramming plan is, a plan that could have been derailed by anything from Carrie being killed to Nazir being injured to his car being too damaged to cops showing up to civilians crowding in to help (it's even mentioned in the show that there were eyewitnesses), but I'd rather focus on the man behind the wheel himself. Yes, a terrorist plot on Homeland finally goes right, because the terrorist leader stopped using his dumb mooks and lieutenants, rolled up his sleeves and got on in there. All the other plots – some years in the making – failed in lesser hands, but Nazir personally gets it done in one day.
Because as we all know, the most skilled member of any organization is the head of said organization. That is why every general in the military is a better shot than every man he commands, and every football coach could, if he wished, out-throw his quarterback. It's a good thing Osama bin Laden didn't personally fly United 93, or it certainly would have reached its destination!
This is video game logic. Of course Bowser is stronger than all his minions. It's also 80s action movie logic. And it's 24 logic – often, a 24 head terrorist getting in on the action wasn't the desperate last ditch thing it would be in real life, but a "shit just got real" moment. Now, Homeland can be proud to stand up amongst 24, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando, and Super Mario games in realistic depiction of the hierarchy of villainous institutions.
Ok, so then Nazir calls Brody and lays out his blackmail masterstroke, Carrie's life for Walden's (and Brody, who is currently in the middle of a CIA safe house with agents all about him, starts repeatedly screaming "NAZIR!" at his phone – so inconspicuous). Then he explains his terrorist philosophy to Carrie via a hacky villain monologue about his hatred of American beach houses and organic foods, an ideological examination no deeper than the one Gary Oldman's character gets in Air Force One. That so many TV critics were hoodwinked by this scene stupefies me.
So (and by the way, I'm skipping over the Saul and Dana subplots here, because dialogue as incredible as "just the same way that we killed that woman" clearly speaks for itself), a few scenes after Carrie tells Nazir, "There's no way he can just waltz into the Naval Observatory and get you that serial number," Brody just waltzes into the Naval Observatory and gets him that serial number. Nazir forwards the pacemaker number to his elite hacker, who immediately sends his e-heart attack to Vice President Walden, and, exactly 4 minutes and 43 seconds after Brody texts Nazir, Walden is dead.
Now, I understand there are ways to digitally flummox pacemakers. They take incredibly expensive technology and a long time and you have to be within a foot or two of the pacemaker to do it. If any one of those things were the case the depiction of Nazir's hacker emailing Walden a heart attack would still be pretty stupid. Taking all of those things into account, it has little more of a foothold in reality than most of Game of Thrones.
Now, as I mentioned up top, I quite liked 24 for most of its run, and this is a series of events that wouldn't even make me blink in 24. That show loved it some goofy sci-fi technology employed in the pursuit of terror and/or terrorists. But 24 was upfront about what it was from the very first episode of the series when a sexy female terrorist blew up a commercial airliner in freefall after having skydived from it. Homeland is a series that dedicated the first third of its first season to a single observation assignment, and the planned terrorist attack that the entire first season built up to the prevention of was a simple suicide vest. It was understated and believable. In everything except the broadest subject matter, it was the anti-24.
So what happened? Did Gansa and Gordon only have one solid season outlined, leaving their dicks flapping in the wind for season 2? Were they just in constant pursuit of that next awesome cliffhanger high, which led down a rabbit hole of stupidity? Or – and I'm prepared to retract my scorn in the unlikely event that this is the case – did they just need to quickly move the pieces into place for something that's more interesting and worthy of Homeland season 1 for the season's final two outings?
Despite all this, I'm eager to see what those final two episodes hold, just like I was eager for what happened next after damn near every dumb 24 cliffhanger. And, when it comes down to it, the show still has a decent chance of making my top twenty of 2012 (though sure as hell not my top ten anymore), because dumb fun is still fun. But subtle, brainy, literate television this no longer is, and anyone pretending otherwise – and this includes a shocking number of TV critics I've read – is now in the throes of full-on denial.