Homeland: Changing The Game

I can’t believe it’s taken me all of season one and five episodes into season two to write about Showtime’s adrenaline ride Homeland, a show that can only be described as the greatest drama on television. It’s up there with SouthLAnd, but in a different way. SouthLAnd is resolutely anti-plot, existing intensely, almost existentially in the moment, while Homeland is the absolute pinnacle of tightly-plotted, brutally ratcheted series-spanning conflicts and tensions. Where they meet is in their equally brilliant treatment of character; the brutal paring back of psychological layers, the unflinching dismantling of everything their characters believe.

Everything in shadow… Damien Lewis as Brody

Homeland really does have it all. Gut-wrenching tension and reversals, compellingly real characters who wear their complexities and contradictions lightly and naturally, an insanely suspenseful master plot that is apparently constructed from a thousand insanely suspenseful moments that have you on the edge of your sofa, on your feet, shouting at your TV, and watching it over again to make sure that DID just happen. The writers of this show are obviously masters of furiously fast pacing, throwing down HUGE story revelations and dropping massive story bombs in the earliest episodes – already, in just five episodes of season two, we’ve had at least three monumental GAME CHANGING scenes, any of which would be another series’ season finale (or even series finale). But the writers of Homeland have almost casually taken us to these extreme places, with SEVEN episodes still remaining. This is how you know: they must have some extreme shit planned for the rest of the season. And they’ve shown us we can trust them. Trust is key to long running dramas: are the writers just bullshitting their way through, or do they have a plan? The Homeland writers have the tightest grip on their story, from the “in the moment” beats, to the arc of each season. The beats, scenes and episodes of this show are solid and interlock tightly. There are no gaps, no wobble in the construction. Just a series of emotionally and cerebrally detonating storylines that power through an ever-escalating sense of suspense.

As writer Alexander Cary has said, “if we have a good story idea, we go there, and we don’t delay it, we don’t bank it. We write ourselves into corners.” The way they write themselves out of those corners is always exhilarating; high-wire writing, executed perfectly, every time.

Anything can happen… Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

This writers room, led by 24‘s Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, gives us everything.

There are small, breathless character moments (Dana and Finn in the Washington Monument, their reflected faces held suspended in the dark glass above the glittering city lights); bad-ass moments of all kinds (“The Smile,” the snarky banter between Carrie and new analyst Peter Quinn, Saul’s gruff awesomeness, terrifying chase scenes); gripping psychological arcs; deep wells of emotion; characters pushed to their absolute limits; and, of course, THAT PLOT… that vertigo-inducing sense of WHAT THE HELL CAN THEY POSSIBLY DO NEXT?!

The nature of threat: any scene can explode at any time. Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn.

In Homeland, character revelations and plot vertigo moments happen at the exact same time; plot and character are the same thing in this show. The interrogation scene in episode five, where Carrie and Brody are both utterly raw, her with love, him with the collapse of everything in his world, is one such example: it’s staggeringly riveting, finely-detailed, deeply soulful, and, in its most extreme, extraordinary, series-changing, character-revealing moment, utterly quiet and low-key. One simple word after the LONGEST pause in TV history changed the game. AGAIN.

The loudest of truths in the quietest of moments

That’s something I love, and it has changed the shape of my own writing. You can’t truly love something without it changing you. This is definitely one of the joys of being a writer: when other writers show you amazing possibilities and just make you want to get back to the laptop and write something new, something better. This beautiful hybrid of powerful, engaging character work and OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT plotting is something I was aiming for with ALTERED; and, now I’m writing book two of that series, I’ve essentially got a sticker above my desk that reads WWTWOHD (What Would The Writers Of Homeland Do… not exactly catchy, but damned effective). It’s a show that any writer of any kind can learn from – and should learn from. It’s an extraordinary example of brilliant storytelling.

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2010: A Year Of Black Swans

2010 has been a unique year in culture. It was a year of chaos and a million little details, the year of Twitter and hashtags, the year of ‘that Facebook movie.’ It was a year of significant endings, notably with Lost and 24 coming to a close after six and eight years respectively, and the publication of Mockingjay closing out the Hunger Games trilogy.

It was also a year of wonderful discoveries and surprises. This post is dedicated to those cultural events: moments that seemed to defy expectation and hope, or seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, made absolute and wonderful sense. Cultural items that approached the status of perfection in the midst of an unruly, chaotic year. Seven cultural moments that captured and defined this element of welcome surprise.

These are the Black Swans of 2010.

(1) Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

The fierce intelligence of Natalie Portman’s haunting performance alone would put Black Swan on this list, but there was so much more to talk about in Aronofsky’s always surprising, moving and terrifying ode to the relentless search for perfection. It’s a favorite theme on this blog, the lengths to which an artist must go to bring us the truth, the extent to which they must go into the darkness to bring back the light (particularly here, and here). Aronofsky’s beautiful, painful retelling of Swan Lake is a near-perfect capturing of this struggle, this destructive of question of how far we are willing to go for art, for the thing we love. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin was a deft reworking of the tale, and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score masterfully interwove Tchaikovsky’s themes with a darker, more electronic menace.

(2) Wolf Hall.

Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary novel told the life of Thomas Cromwell in luminous, preternaturally poetic prose that had a rawness and directness as she incisively laid bare the brutal psychology of the man and his world, turning the events of Henry VIII’s time with Anne Boleyn into a superior, terrifying and ultimately haunting thriller. The sheer brilliance on display is staggering. The only response as a writer is to bow down before it, and then raise your game accordingly. One of the most best written, plotted and executed novels of all time; this is no exaggeration.

(3)(a) Colin Firth’s revelatory performance in The King’s Speech.

This wasn’t surprising in itself – the man is a fantastic actor, who sublimates the full panoply of human emotion into such subtle, compelling renderings – but what was surprising was the way it took him from his habitual under-the-radar brilliance to a more publicly noted recognition, which hopefully will result in an Oscar for Firth, who seems to be criminally underrated at these events.

(3)(b) Colin Firth’s sparring with Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.

It was a huge pleasure to watch Firth’s tightly-wound, emotionally fraught monarch-in-waiting go up against the magisterial ease and laconic skill of Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist. Watching these two highly skilled performers go at it was never going to be anything other than excellent, but their scenes together truly elevated the movie. Both are extremely skilled technically, but both know how to submerge all that in simple truth, beautiful details that reveal soul, a life of emotional pain in the flickering of eyelids, a cry for help from a man with no voice, the response from the man with many who needs to find which is true. Exhilarating.

(4) Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network.

The way David Fincher used this brilliant electronic score to add the most important layer to The Social Network, giving it a deep, dark sci-fi edge, and adding the thrilling, exhilarating element of creativity and innovation happening before our eyes. The screenplay was beyond outstanding, one of Aaron Sorkin’s best, and Fincher was absolutely at the top of his game in the way he layered in the speed of thought, the scheming psychologies, the sheer sense of invention – but it was the score that made this movie exceptional.

(5) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I blogged extensively about this album here. Simply put, this album was a raging against the light, a paean to creativity and innovation unleashed and uncensored. Thrilling to listen to, it laid out Kanye West’s interior world in all its fabulous, deranged and joyous glory. Given the darkness from which West had to emerge, it’s simultaneously all the more remarkable and all the more likely that he would return with a barnstorming, take no prisoners set of tracks is likely his opus, his masterwork.

(6) The rise of Emma Stone.

Her warm, witty, engaging ascension to stardom with her never less than brilliant performance in Easy A elevated Stone from her previous roles as cute, funny girl who stole scenes, to her natural arena: owning a movie from start to finish, and marrying a raw emotional soul to a killer sense of comedy and goofiness. Smart, engaging, warm, and funny as hell. It wasn’t unexpected, in fact it was long overdue, but the way it happened was one of the more happy surprises of the year. A true leading lady.

(7) The renewal of Southland.

I blogged about Southland when it first started on NBC here, and why TNT should renew Southland here. Despite the show’s diamond-hard brilliance, its brutally unsentimental yet deeply moving shooting, acting and writing style, such a renewal was not guaranteed. The show had a rough beginning, getting canceled by NBC mid-production on season two, but thankfully TNT realized they had hold of one of the sharpest, most real, raw and immediate cop dramas ever made, and did the right thing. The renewal was a true black swan event, seemingly impossible yet utterly necessary. It was above all a huge relief: in so many ways, Southland is unparalleled in the world of TV drama. Season three commences on 1/4/2011.

Honorable mentions:

AMC’s The Walking Dead, Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

The one…

If I had to choose one of these seven black swans to truly represent the defining cultural truth of 2010… well, that would be a tough choice. Of these, which was the most thrilling, exhilarating, perfectly detailed and beautiful moment of the year? Perhaps unsurprisingly, my choice would be Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which said everything about beauty, perfection, drive, talent, and creativity, and did it all with a melancholy and ferocious brilliance.

Next time, on Dreaming Between The Lines...

Coming soon in 2011… a review of Southland season three, a look at YA fiction, the state of TV drama, and more.

Happy New Year!

24 – 00:00:00 [series finale spoilers]

From the sly reappearance for the final two episodes of the original introductory “events occur in real time,” it was clear that 24 was going to end the way it was always meant to, with a deeply fulfilling and thrilling sense of natural conclusion. Led by Howard Gordon, Kiefer Sutherland and the rest of the heroic 24 writers’ room, the creative team brought 24 home through an emotionally brutal season that stripped story down to its bare bones and allowed it to rocket brutally to the beautifully played final moments. The writers of this show outdid themselves, and they have set extraordinarily high standards throughout the last 8 seasons. From the opening scenes of Day One, 12 a.m., the show has blended Jack’s emotional life with the larger forces of threat and danger. Both strands have always been intertwined in the name of the series’ true god: intensity. It was a writer’s dream in some ways: complex inner lives played out against critically high stakes that threatened not just our central characters’ lives, but frequently the fabric of America itself – and all of it having to be delivered with the pedal to the metal in a race against that elegant digital readout. This was always a digital show, blurring technology just into the future, fetishizing it, but only in service of the plot. Even the emotions of the final moments needed advanced technology to play out – and in its ending, 24 demonstrated in a virtuoso fashion how to use high-tech devices to perfectly understated, devastating effect. As the seasons progressed, the streamlined future-glow of the set design increased (seasons 3 and 8 marked particular increases in the sophistication of the surroundings), and some of the more domestic aspects fell further back, in favor of the more fascinating psychological journey taken by Bauer as his pain and emotional wounds accumulated, as pieces of his soul were chipped away by the actions he was forced to take to save us. These writers broke story like no-one else. By the end of the series finale, the story was like Jack himself: brutally beaten but unyielding. There was more plot in one episode of 24 – hell, in one act of the show – than in whole seasons of some other shows. To write a season of 24 was a demanding exercise in brutal dominion over story. The writers earned this finale; it was hard-fought and hard-won. It was the ending that the show demanded, and arose only from what went before. Everything was important in the end, every moment of those 8 days led Jack to this point. The end of 24 seemed to contain the entire series in a powerful distillation of its entire ethos and reason for being. It was a cathartic release that was entirely necessary. 24 raced headlong and demanded furious precision with every second. The show contained powerhouse performances, in the final season particularly. Kiefer Sutherland: the man is a true legend – never dropping the intensity level, never yielding. He fought, hard, for every single scene, and found new reservoirs of emotional pain for these final episodes. Gregory Itzin as Charles Logan: the personification of shifty, shady immorality. There was something Shakespearean about the sheer psychological detail of his deceptions: his face a shifting sea of complications and machinations. The only response to this was the one taken by Jack as he suited up in full body armor and face mask, like a dark knight or future warrior stripped for those moments of even Bruce Wayne’s humanity: Jack became pure, faceless vengeance. Of course, by the end, Jack was stripped of everything that he held dear. In some of the series’ finest acting, he spoke with Chloe and said goodbye in a simple scene that was heartrending. In their own platonic way, Jack and Chloe had the longest-running and purest relationship on the show; seeing the show end on them was perfect storytelling. Mary Lynn Rajskub, who has been for many years the essential heroine of this show, truly delivered the emotional goods, just as Annie Wersching had a few episodes earlier (Renee Walker’s arc was tragic and haunting, and Wersching nailed every moment). Watching Rajskub slowly disintegrate as she realized she might never see her friend again was one of the great moments of recent television. Mention must also be made of Freddie Prinze Jr, who delivered a convincing and honest performance as a by the book CTU agent who is ultimately torn away from his rules. 24 pushed the boundaries of network drama: with its real-time structure, the split screens, the fact that its lifeblood was relentless intensity, the way it allowed a movie star to rise again as a force of TV nature, and in the way it could shift gears from crescendos of violence to deeply emotional arcs and back again without ever slowing down. It always had a force and intensity that made other shows seem slow. But it was time to say goodbye, for now. The show had explored many kinds of threats: the final season took the lessons learned from the previous seasons and harnessed every trick in its book plus a whole new set of techniques to power through its final day. It was a show at the height of its powers. We already know that Jack will be back on the big screen. In the meantime, the show gave us a perfect finale that still kept moving. The show like a shark remained in perpetual motion, even after the final clock  ticked down to 00:00:00.