TV Military Drama ‘Homeland’ Taps Into America’s Psyche

Producer and writer Howard Gordon’s TV shows have reflected uncannily the American psyche since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

“24,” the Fox drama he helped mold into the Emmy-winning thriller about terrorist-busting super patriot Jack Bauer, premiered just weeks after Sept. 11 and became a testosterone-amped fantasy retort to al-Qaeda. Ten years later, Gordon’s acclaimed new Showtime series, “Homeland,” created with Alex Gansa and based on the Israeli drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) debuted not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. And the fourth episode of this series about a returning POW will air just days after the release scheduled for Oct. 18 of Israeli captive Gilad Shalit.

The POW at the center of “Homeland” is Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who is rescued after eight years of captivity in Afghanistan, hailed as a national hero and trotted out by the military as a poster boy for the war on terror, even as his flashbacks of horrific torture reveal his instability. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is the rogue CIA officer who suspects Brody may have been “turned into” a terrorist agent, and who utilizes illegal means to plant video cameras in his home and even to spy on the awkward sex he attempts with his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin).

For these transgressions, Carrie, who herself is hiding a secret — she suffers from bipolar disorder — is confronted by her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), a Jewish character whose talmudic observations often serve as the conscience of the show.

“Homeland” is the latest American production to be adapted from Israeli television, which has become a go-to place for Hollywood producers looking for material — the most successful example thus far having been HBO’s psychotherapy drama “In Treatment,” based on Israel’s “BeTipul.”

While the first season of “In Treatment” was translated almost verbatim from its Israeli counterpart, “Homeland” — also from Keshet Broadcasting — required much more transformation. “In Israel, the issue of POWs is in everyone’s consciousness; Galid Shalit has been at the front and center of a national tragedy,” the 50-year-old Gordon said. “So, in ‘Hatufim,’ the homecoming of two longtime captives launches a domestic drama that becomes the heart of the show.”

For audiences in the United States, however, where the immediate threat of al-Qaeda has appeared to recede, a psychological thriller seemed a better approach. Gordon and Gansa added a female CIA officer to the mix and created a cat-and-mouse game between the flawed agent and the former captive. “We posited that the returning soldier had possibly turned into a terrorist and had been sent back here as the tip of the spear of a major attack on U.S. soil,” Gordon said.

The premise allowed “Homeland” to explore the murkier moral questions lurking upon the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. “While ’24’ was born in the wake of 9/11 and represents a kind of national wish-fulfillment, ‘Homeland’ picks up the story at a time when the nation has experienced a kind of collective amnesia and the fear factor is not nearly as acute,” Gordon said. “So we have Carrie, the CIA officer who is holding almost obsessively onto that fear. For that, she is marginalized and an outcast, rather than regarded as a national hero like Jack Bauer.”

Howard Gordon

Gordon said he intends for the series to ask, but not answer, questions such as: “What do we have to be afraid of now, and how far do we go to protect ourselves? If we’re invading the rights of others, who gets to tell us who we are allowed to watch, and what are the emotional and psychological costs to the people who invade our privacy?”

“24” was denounced by some critics as Islamophobic and accused of validating the Bush administration’s policies regarding torture. Gordon denies both charges, pointing out that the fictional Bauer grew increasingly introspective following news headlines of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Thus far, the Muslim characters introduced in “Homeland” have not been savory, but Gordon said the series will introduce a Muslim CIA agent in order to offer a balanced perspective. Then there is the chilling sequence that reveals Brody converted to Islam during his captivity and is praying in secret in his garage. “It’s designed to scare us, because of our own prejudices,” Gordon said. “It forces you to ask yourself: ‘Does the fact that Brody now practices Islam mean that he is now a terrorist?’

“I would caution people to take a beat and wait to watch the story play out, as it did on ’24,’ and then once the dust settles will be a good time to talk,” he said.

Gordon began working on “Homeland” the same day that “24” wrapped, having been captivated by the premise since his agent introduced him to “Hatufim.” The popular Israeli series — which is available in Hebrew online and will premiere its second season in December — is the brainchild of Gideon Raff, an Israeli graduate of the American Film Institute who directed the English-language films “The Killing Floor” and “Train” before returning to Israel with “Prisoners of War.”

“There had never been an Israeli series, ever, that dealt with what happened to POWs after their release,” said the 39-year-old Raff, who is also an executive producer on “Homeland.”  “Even when the subject arose in newspapers or books, it always focused on the trauma of captivity or the obsession with bringing our boys home, not how they [fare] the day after their return. There are about 1,500 POWs who did come back, but we know very little about their lives after captivity.”

Anticipating flak for tackling such a taboo subject when soldiers, including Shalit, remained imprisoned, Raff meticulously researched the psychological aftermath of captivity, which, he said, applies as much to POWs held in Vietnam as in the Gaza Strip. He said he interviewed 10 Israeli ex-prisoners, including Hezi Shai, who was imprisoned for three years after being ambushed during the first Lebanon War.

“Hatufim” incorporates what Raff learned from his research; the ex-POWs in both shows display an inability to bond with family members, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as a need to sit on a floor in the dark in order to feel safe, or sleep on the floor, as they did in captivity. In “Hatufim,” the former captives must deal with the additional problem of searing guilt — knowing that thousands of terrorists who may go on to commit other atrocities have been released in exchange for their own freedom.

While some reviewers saw “Hatufim” as exploiting POWs’ pain for entertainment purposes, Raff disagrees, insisting, “We dealt with the subject with the utmost respect.

“It would have been presumptuous on my part to think that I’d do a series to help rescue Gilad Shalit,” Raff added. “But I do wish that one day the show will be relevant for him.”

“Homeland” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.