Unpredictability: the key to Homeland’s success

David Butcher praises the sleeper hit of the year, the US drama starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis

If you had asked any self-respecting TV expert (me, for instance) a few months ago which American series would have British viewers under its spell this spring, the answer would have been loud and clear: Mad Men.


Sack the experts: it has flopped. At Mad Men’s new home on Sky Atlantic, audiences in recent weeks have sunk to embarrassing lows: under 50,000. (To put that in perspective, it’s roughly one viewer for every 100 who watches Silent Witness… I’m just saying.)

Meanwhile, another US hit crept onto our screens: the strange, shadowy beast that is Homeland. Channel 4’s spy drama doesn’t just get good figures, it has people transfixed. It is the sort of television people talk about in urgent tones on Monday mornings, the sort of television people don’t just watch, they dream about and argue over and become mildly obsessed by – myself included.

It’s not hard to see why. At the show’s beating heart is the hard-drinking bombshell of a CIA agent that is Carrie Mathison. She’s a wonderful creation. Just as some Mad Men viewers long to rescue Don Draper, I can’t be the only Homeland fan who wouldn’t mind whisking Carrie far away from her life of terrorist hunting and jazz clubs. (She’s a jazz lover – nobody’s perfect.)

We love Carrie – and not just we, as in men, but we as in viewers. We feel for her desperation and her vulnerability and her deep sadness. The most wounding moment in the series so far was when, late one night, discussing relationships with her boss and father-figure, Saul, she said simply, “I’m going to be alone my whole life, aren’t I?”

Claire Danes does this strong-weak mix brilliantly. We buy the fact that Carrie is wired and rule-averse and has a mood disorder and ought to have been fired years ago, but we also buy that she’s the smartest, most intuitive agent the CIA has, and the most driven.

And now Carrie has an Achilles heel (another Achilles heel, if you count her prescription drug dependency): the man she was the only person to spot as a possible threat to America is also the man she has fallen in love with. Or has she?

Like almost everything in Homeland, we don’t quite know (yet). Just as we don’t know whether Brody, the terrorist/war hero, is to be trusted or not. The series keeps us dangling on a thread, with no idea what’s coming next – when Brody is going to shoot a deer at a family barbecue or Saul is going to fail a lie-detector test. (Surely, he can’t be a baddie, can he?)

It’s like watching a sleight-of-hand magician set fire to the card you picked, then produce it from your wallet. We keep being dumbfounded.

That sort of unpredictability, where you really have no sense of where the plot’s going or quite who the characters are, is incredibly rare in TV dramas. We tend to prefer our stories to run along lines we know and love, lines we’ve seen a hundred times before, like a New Tricks case or, yes, Silent Witness, where the details differ, but the formula remains the same.

God bless Homeland for keeping us guessing.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 April 2012.


Homeland continues tonight at 9pm on Channel 4