Sunday, October 28, 2012

'Homeland': A Master Class Indeed...

When you look at today's television, across networks, genres, time periods, one thing is pretty consistent: individual scenes are a page and a half at best. For some series, there is a seeming rule to never stray past a page. There seems to be a general consensus among the people who make television that modern audiences don't have attention spans; that the pace of story-telling has to be brisk in order to be compelling. Sometimes this is actually at the detriment of the writing, and it is still unclear what came first: the network notes to keep things short and sweet or the writer's own trend of wanting to get in and get out of a scene in order to "show" rather than "tell". As a pop culture consumer, I have been most fascinated by the interaction and dialogue between characters, and you can lose a lot of the intricacies of personality and relationship when you cut them off. It's probably one of the reasons I loved soap operas in the '90s; you could linger with those characters, and even when they were delivering exposition, they were drawing you into their world with their words. Tonight's Homeland, aptly titled "Q&A", thrillingly proved you can still do long, compelling scenes on television. I defy any of you to tell me you were not completely riveted by Carrie's (Claire Danes) interrogation of Brody (Damian Lewis).

What has always made Homeland so smart and psychological to me was the cat and mouse game played between Carrie and Brody in the first place. After the first season ended with them physically separated and her unable to remember some key moments of her recent encounters with his "case," it seemed like the show was getting away from that theme, but then along game "Q&A" and slammed us right back into what we loved but thought we lost. 

Sitting across the table in that interrogation room, there was no doubt in my mind that Brody had planned out what he would say-- just how much he was willing to confess to. He is a smart guy, and he had been taken prisoner before; he had to have a plan for if it should happen again, just in different circumstances and this time from the other side. I'm sure he was truly blindsided by how soon it happened and by whom, but still. And there was no doubt in my mind that Carrie sliding across the table, cutting the cameras to boot, changed that plan, even just a little. He has been a man torn ever since he got back and started re-integrating into his family life and the American way. But her presence complicated things even more because under different circumstances she would have been someone he could have confessed everything to; she would have been someone to understand, squeeze his hands, and maybe even stand on that side with him. 

Watching him struggle to share only enough, and watching her struggle with whether or not there was more she needed to dig out while she just wanted to embrace him was amazing. It was a master class in acting and just another reason Danes and Lewis deserve all the Emmys while this show is still on air, in contention for all the Emmys. But it was a master class in writing and production, too, and why the show deserves many more awards than just for performances. 

A 15 minute scene. When all was said and done, we spent 15 heart-pounding, breath-holding, pulse-racing moments cutting back and forth between two people having a conversation (and the occasional shot of them on monitors as Saul (Mandy Patinkin) watched them having said conversation, which admittedly I could have done without because letting you out of the room let you breathe just a little bit, and the full effect really came when you felt trapped with them in their tight close-ups). It was tense and scary and exhilarating, and I wanted to scream at both of them, for different things. 

(Now, I'm well aware commercial interruptions on broadcast television mean a fifteen minute scene would absolutely get cut up, interrupted by ads. I'm not trying to imply every show should do a fifteen minute scene, specifically, either. But what I love is the idea that this can inspire other shows to being willing to expand past a page and to cut back and forth less and just let us sit with one thing at a time. You know, old-school, pre-MTV fast-cutting f*cking every future generation up).

Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa never let you get comfortable in this scene. Aside from the words that had the audience squirming-- from Brody refusing to admit he had strapped on a bomb to Carrie admitting she wanted him to leave his family for her-- it never even gave you a traditional two-shot. Instead, it put you in either characters P.O.V. at any given moment so you could feel what he or she was feeling before it snapped you out of it just as abruptly to show you the other side. You could forget all you knew that either character didn't; you were no longer the omnipotent, if not fully objective, third party observing their scenes. You were in the trenches with them; you were them.

Most importantly, though, it was the kind of scene I didn't think you could do anymore-- on television or otherwise. It was almost taboo. Maybe that added to the level of excitement because at around nine minutes I realized how long the scene was running and just wanted to see how much longer they could go. I would have been fine if the entire hour had been Carrie and Brody in a room, manipulating each other with mind games. That is the heart of the show; that is the core conflict.

Let's be honest, the majority of the audience was waiting for a real Carrie/Brody face-to-face since he turned her into Estes (David Harewood) last season. So this scene certainly had a lot riding on it. The fact that Homeland gave it such attention and care was not surprising. But the willingness the show was to take the risk that was letting it play out in one chunk-- letting it speak for itself-- made it so much more powerful. Tonight Homeland proved that when done smartly, a long discussion scene between two rich, engaging characters is much more exciting than any car chase or explosion or loud, screechy noise followed by a shock value amount of blood or gore.

The risk seems like nothing compared to the reward.

1 comment:

isrightasrain said...

Amazingly put. Well said.