The mad old wizard in Sky1’s fantasy-sitcom Yonderland lost his mojo. This wasn’t a figure of speech: the joke was that there was an actual small, angry creature called a mojo, who alone could restore our wizard’s magic.
If only it was as easy for Channel 4’s Homeland. Loyal fans of the spy thriller have been feeling the need to restore some small, angry mojos to Carrie, Saul, Quinn and the rest, because if ever a series lost its way, it’s this one.
The first few episodes of season three were creakingly dull. The backwater they drifted on was a plotline about CIA heroine Carrie being confined to a psychiatric ward, where she was forced to act out a poor man’s version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Nonetheless, through her ordeals I stayed with Homeland, loyally, because I remember how much I used to love it. I stayed even when watching the show felt almost like intruding on private grief, like seeing a once great Mo Farah lurch drunkenly around the park with a shopping trolley, wearing fleeces tied on with string and muttering about 2012.
Yes, things were bad, but I reasoned the slump was probably down to the absence of Islamist anti-hero Brody (Damian Lewis). Then Brody reappeared, and things got worse.
The episode where we followed his shaven head to a towerblock slum in Caracas was a fever-dream that added nothing. The laboured mirroring of Brody’s predicament and Carrie’s – he tried to resist heroin shots from a creepy doctor, she tried to come off her meds in hospital – only rammed home for fans how hopelessly far apart our ill-starred couple were, dammit.
Then – then! – the series pulled off one of the daftest plot reversals since Bobby Ewing reached for the conditioner. Bearded CIA sage Saul, we learnt, had cooked up the plan to discredit Carrie and hospitalise her, and she was in on the whole thing. It was all a gambit to fool Iranian intelligence, so they would try to “turn” her and she could trap their evil mastermind. Ta-dah!
Brilliant – except it made no sense. Earlier episodes were now revealed as not only wearisome but outright wonky. Why, to choose one example, would Carrie need to sleep with her one-night-stand and steal his wallet if it turns out she was not desperate and alone at all, but heading an operation for the director of the world’s most powerful intelligence agency?
Any number of plot seams came unstitched. But never mind, because the super-twist appeared to slap the Homeland writers’ room out of its daze. The two latest episodes have buzzed with a new energy. We’re dealing with espionage not electrodes, burner phones and baddies not hospital beds and teenage angst. (I haven’t even gone into the subplot about sour-faced adolescent Dana: they really might just as well have put a caption with “Plot: buffering” up on screen for ten minutes of each episode.)
So now I sit down on Sunday nights hoping for good things again. Long-running US series sometimes lose their bearings like this (look at Lost or whole chunks of Boardwalk Empire) but at least Homeland came back to us. It’s the prodigal drama: the show that was lost is found. And that’s just as well, because its American broadcaster has just ordered series four. For better or worse, Carrie and co will run and run.
Homeland is on Sunday at 9:00pm on Channel 4.