Homeland‘s complete domination of the drama Emmy Awards last night—Claire Danes and Damian Lewis won for their lead performances, and the show took home awards for writing for a drama series and for best drama series—was a surprise for many of us watching at home, whether we doing so for personal or professional reasons (or in my case, watching football while following along on Twitter). It’s possible to quibble with some of the awards. Breaking Bad, in particular, had an extremely strong season, and I might have gone with Bryan Cranston over Lewis just for the sheer range he was required to deploy. But on the whole, I’m very happy with the drama awards (vastly less so with comedy, but that’s another story). And there’s something exciting to me about watching the enthusiasm for Homeland on display last night.
On Twitter, a number of critics I care for dearly and admire were quick to declare Mad Men a vastly superior show to Homeland, which in the final analysis of history, may prove correct. But there’s something brave and bracing to me about the way Homeland has tackled the issues and environment of our own time, rather than reaching back into our history to explore the psychological contours of debates that are essentially settled, and settled for the better. Mad Men explores a broader universe through the lens of its advertising agency (and its much larger core cast) than Homeland does from within the intelligence community, but it sometimes does so with less courage. It’s a show that’s much more interested in exploring Don Draper’s reaction to having to put up with a token black employee than with the experiences of Dawn, SCDP’s African-American pioneer, herself. The show tells us that sexism is damaging to both men and women, and than white men could be shocked when their obliviousness was breached. These are things I think we know, gussied up in beautiful clothes and gilded with performances that are sometimes exceptional.
Homeland, by contrast, is concerned with the urgent present rather than the weight of history. At a moment when President Obama’s drone program raises profoundly difficult questions about how to regulate the president’s right to kill, Homeland has charged into the debate with an exploration of the impact of the people who are killed because they are in the way of drone strikes, and how those strikes can be used to powerfully shift opinion against the United States. At a time when large numbers of Americans persist, against all evidence and reason, in believing that our president is a foreigner and a secret Muslim so they won’t have to accept that their nation actually chose a black man to occupy its highest office, Homeland has given us a sensitive, even tender portrait of a convert to Islam, presenting the practice of his faith as beautiful and sanctified, who hides his religion (something that will become an issue in the second season premiere next Sunday). And in Carrie Mathison, Homeland‘s given us a female lead who is damaged less by history than by the things that make her brilliant. These are narrower concerns than the broad societal forces Mad Men explores, but that specificity doesn’t make the show less bold: instead, it makes it more painful and immediate.
There’s a tendency, I think, in the current era of television, to believe that who we are isn’t interesting enough to reach transcendence. Modern Family, which cleaned up in the comedy Emmys, is a perfect example of why that belief is somewhat justified. It’s anodyne, often cliche and broad, a sunny, bland portrait of who we’d like to be were we rich and fit enough. It’s self-affirmation swapped in for self-reflection, just as Mad Men is a meditation on the past that implicates and challenges the actual experiences or beliefs of almost no one watching it. Greatness, we’ve convinced ourselves, comes from deviance, whether in The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy, from journeys into the past, which is why Starz is attempting to lever itself into greatness with period pieces like Magic City and networks took their shots with Pan Am and the Playboy Club, or the fantastical, be it the growing dragons on Game of Thrones or the escapes into eight-bit video games on Community, rather than from straight-forward interrogations of ourselves.
Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody are none of these alchemical things: they may be extraordinary human beings, but they are plausible ones, rather than the monstrous genius Walter White has become on Breaking Bad, and of our present moment. Homeland and Parks and Recreation, its unlikely cousin in the world of comedy, insist that the world as it is right now can often be enough, a place with its own chances for heroism and villainy, for explorations of damage that can happen fresh rather than echoing down the years. It may be narrower for our television to look at drone strikes or the difficulty of beating a heavily monied political candidate than the rather broader subject of gender in the sixties or the conquest of Westeros. But sometimes the most piercing, sweetest television comes from asking us to look closely at ourselves as we truly are, and in the moment we live in.