Terror TV

Homeland shows the messier side of the security bureaucracy.

Less than two months after the 9/11 attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden, the war on terror came to prime time. The vehicle was 24, a grim, often gleefully violent show starring a gung-ho American counterterrorism agent working to stop a series of spectacular terror plots—the follow-up attacks that many expected but never came.

Set in real time, with each season taking place over the course of a single day, 24 affirmed America’s worst fears about terrorism—that massive, coordinated attack plans were numerous and perpetually imminent—while simultaneously attempting to reassure viewers that super-powered security agents with godlike surveillance capabilities would ultimately prevail against any threat, stopping at nothing to do so.

A decade later, 24’s hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is the war on terror’s best known pop-culture icon. But as the show wore on, its relevance declined along with public enthusiasm for both the war and the two overseas conflicts it produced.

Two of that show’s executive producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, are playing catch-up with Homeland, a series that premiered on Showtime in October. It patrols much of the same turf as 24 but from a decidedly more skeptical perspective.

Like 24, the show is a terrorism thriller that chronicles a high-stakes hunt for an elusive terrorist mastermind believed to be planning an attack. But while 24 captured the Bush-era zeal for revenge with a combination of vicarious, violent thrills and absolute moral certainty, Homeland offers a less enthusiastic, more ambiguous picture of an uncertain campaign against an uncertain enemy—and a security infrastructure that is often more invasive than effective. 

Much of the difference boils down to self-confidence. 24 came off as brash and self-certain, taking as a given that the surveillance state was a powerful, effective, and necessary tool for fighting terror. That confidence frequently extended to the technology itself—the assorted networks of computers and satellites and spy gadgets—which it tended to portray with worshipful awe. In the world of 24, nowhere and no one were safe from the government’s eyes in the sky.

Nor were they safe from Jack Bauer, the show’s hyper-competent lead agent. Bauer was a sort of Americanized, post-9/11 update on James Bond, brutal and remorseless (his main claim to fame was his affinity for creative torture) rather than cool and suave. Like Bond, Bauer was effectively a superhero, invincible and unstoppable, and the impossible technology at his fingertips was an extension of his powers.

This ethos reflected the show’s pulpy, techno-thriller trappings and its residual tech-bubble belief in the power of the newly digital world. Few shows have inundated viewers with as much dizzying, mostly made-up high-tech gibberish. Actor Sean Astin, who appeared in the series’ fifth season, once complained that his main challenge was “memorizing all the techno-talk.”

But 24’s unflappable techno-superiority was also of a piece with the show’s blustery faith in its mission—and the power of America’s counterterrorism infrastructure to carry it out. Most of 24’s dramatic conflicts, including its notorious depictions of torture, revolved around whether or not to use that power. The details, technical and otherwise, didn’t really matter; Jack Bauer would inevitably make the case that it was worth the cost. Indeed, the show rarely questioned whether Jack and his fellow agents had the capability to catch even the smartest terrorist baddies; it was assumed that they did. Instead, it asked whether they had the will.

Where 24 zeroed in on the consequences of inaction and the power of surveillance, Homeland offers a reticent take on the costs of action and a more skeptical assessment of the American government’s ever-expanding security mission and its ability to pull it off. If not a deconstruction of 24’s brassy, counterterrorist-as-demigod formula, it is certainly a complication of it.

Rather than view the bureaucratic process as a trifle to be dismissed, Homeland goes out of its way to remind viewers that the internal politics of the security bureaucracy—as with other government agencies—hinge on the personal biases and inscrutable incentives of the leadership as much as questions of national security. The show recognizes that bureaucracy is often an end in itself. 

Instead of flawless superspies, Homeland features government agents with deep personal hang-ups and questionable judgment. Claire Danes plays a CIA agent who hides her bipolar disorder from her colleagues, and Damian Lewis is a Marine returned from eight years of captivity in a terrorist hideout who may or may not have been turned by his captors. And while the show still indulges in surveillance fantasies, it recognizes that all such technology has limits, glitches, and flaws—and so do the decidedly imperfect individuals who run the machinery. Even if there’s a will, the show seems to say, there may not always be a way.

As with its predecessor, Homeland’s fictional treatment of the war on terror was nearly overtaken by real-life events. Following 9/11, 24’s producers quickly recut a segment depicting a terrorist blowing up an airplane. Homeland’s creators were already well into crafting the show’s first season when news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and they had to update accordingly.

The producers have said they worried that Bin Laden’s death would render the show meaningless. But if anything, it highlights the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over America’s massive new security infrastructure, and underlines the show’s central question: A decade after 9/11, what has the war on terror cost the United States—and what price is the country willing to continue paying?  

Peter Suderman is a reason associate editor. A version of this article originally appeared in The Washington Times.

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  • Radioactive||

    Torture...YES

  • Suki||

    It is only a TV show.

  • Arduin Grimoire||

  • Suki||

    Am not.

  • Arduin Grimoire||

    Sorry, you were killed in a tragic Golden Girls related hostage situation, beaten to death by a singing big mouth bass. In other words, you died the way you lived.

  • Arduin Grimoire||

    Why is there a pic of the Latisse chick on the front page?

  • The Angry RPh||

    'Cuz she's hawt. Love me some Claire Danes.

  • SIV||

    Repulsive. Good to see her career is so on the skids she's resorted to appearing in a Showtime drama.

  • SIV||

    Who the fuck watches Showtime?

    Guests in bad hotels that are too cheap to have HBO.

    People with introductory "free trial" cable/satellite packages before they cancel it.

  • ||

    I'd disagree with you, but MNG has figured out we are now ditto besties so I have to say I believe everything you say.

  • SIV||

    What'd I miss?

    I remember the "old days" when joe and MNG would harass poor commenters accusing them of being me. After a long day of no 'net-access work I'd log on and find out what I'd been up to.

  • ||

    Dexter? Bullshit?

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    This show is better than anything on HBO right now.

  • SIV||

    That's not sayin' much. Maybe I'm just a "premium pay-tv hater" who gets really pissed when I check into a hotel with only Showtime when I kinda wanted to watch Game of Thrones.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    ^THIS^

    Homeland is an interesting program.. Dexter is some of the best TV out there.. not sure where they are gonna go with it next season though.

  • The Angry RPh||

    ...who may or may not have been turned by his captors...

    And it may or may not be due to a drone strike. Just sayin'.

    Good show.

  • ||

    Peter buries the lede for the XY HnR crowd... Morena Baccarin has two nude scenes.

  • Bill||

    Warning! She is hot, but do not hit the Next or Previous buttons.
    One is a dude and the other ....., well it wouldn't be polite to say.

  • SIV||

    Peter buries the lede for the XY HnR crowd

    That's very heteronormative of you.

  • ||

    The producers have said they worried that Bin Laden’s death would render the show meaningless.

    Imagine a world where shows about the WoD and WoT seem as quaint as Cold War spy thrillers.

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    One thing I really like about this show and that the season finale really brought into focus is that people in positions of power on both sides of the WoT are self-serving assholes of the highest order, which is something I think everyone here can agree on.

  • Andrew Phule||

    "A decade later, 24’s hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is the war on terror’s best known pop-culture icon"

    Umm, John McClane (Bruce Willis) would like a word with you.

  • Spencer||

    Is that word Yippee kay aye?

  • Mr. Falcon||

    Say my name.

  • Andrew Phule||

    If your name had been Captain Falcon, I would have said "FALCON. . . PUNCH!"

    However, since you didn't, I have no idea what it is you want.

  • Mr. Falcon||

  • Spencer||

    Falcon Punch is TOO slow- with the only added advatage of being able to turn it around in mid execution. However, the jump tilt A attack knee is powerful and quick.

  • BoscoH||

    Any complete review of the show should note that the 90 minute season finale was wet your pants riveting for the first hour, then a bit of a let down at the end for contriving a way to tie up all the loose ends and set up the next season. Are you kidding me with her finally figuring out the whole motivation and it being wiped away with electric shock therapy?

  • Radioactive||

    I certainly wet my pants, but I do that anyway, not as a function of what's on TV though...

  • x,y||

    Season finale was terrible.

    ***SPOILER ALERT***

    I was convinced he was going to blow the room up, and actually was disappointed when he didn't. The writers lack the brass balls that the Boardwalk Empire ones have, killing Jimmy.

  • ||

    That dude was in 'Band of Brothers'. Winters, eh? Time-traveling son of a bitch.

  • ||

    Dude that jsut not making a lot of sesne to me man.

    www.privacy-works.tk

  • ||

    I used to like this show; described it as "West Wing" meets "24." I have a feeling that the entirety of season 2 will revolve around "remember that" (I don't want to spoil it if you don't know what I mean). Shame. Lots of potential there.

  • Terror = Nasty, Brutish, Short||

    Agricultural city-Statism must always put people in fear of living in a Non-State sociopolitical typology.

    Terrorism as much bullshit as the Hobbesian mythology written to justify the divine right of kings.

    Locke's Divine Right of Property is more of the same bullshit.

  • ||

    But the maricultural city-state has imposed gambol lockdown. Is property really the thing to argue about when people are actually digging Holy Terra's resources up to fuel human technology and human civilization? I'm not sure how we're going to win the rebellion, however -- we mustn't become like them and use technology, so we'll be forced to stick with bows and arrows and forceful gambol lockdown violation.

    But it's a step in the right direction. Eventually, Marx-Mises gambol prohibition will be lifted!

  • KDN||

    Please, bows and arrows ARE technology. We can only beat them and maintain our sense of moral superiority by using what we find in nature: rocks, sticks, animal claws, and 2x4's with nails sticking out of them.

  • Marx-Mises Axis of Lockdown||

    Communism = Capitalism when it comes to enforcing agricultural city-Statism.

  • Radioactive||

    just how big are her tits and can she suck a golf ball through 10 feet of garden hose?

  • first||

    They are as big as your mom's and yes.

  • first||

    They are as big as your mom's and yes.

  • first||

    They are as big as your mom's and yes.

  • first||

    They are as big as your mom's and yes.

  • ­­­||

    C + a little and probably

  • first||

    Yep, and sorry about the quadruble post my computer is acting weird at the moment.

  • Radioactive||

    cool, my mom had gigantic bazongas and could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch...how about yours?

  • first||

    Yep

  • ||

    I miss "It's Garry Shandling's Show"

  • ||

    I love Homeland. I love how it shows the oft-forgotten consequences of our military revenge of 9/11.

    But I also appreciate the bipoloar aspect of Claire Danes' character. Here she is, with these brilliant insights offered up by a disease that is equally debilitating. Yet the "normal" people are covering up military efforts that killed a ton of people and blaming terrorist response to said effort on Jihad.

    While the shock therapy finale was a bit weird, such treatment is making a comeback in mental health. It does affect memory, so the cliffhanger is whether or not the treatment will erase her conversations with Brody or not.

    Still, not enough television even touching mental health issues in a compassionate way - so nice to see that.

  • DC-esque||

    This is where credulity gets strained a bit. I don't care how much DISCO claims to use the "whole person concept" when adjudicating clearances - she'd have a wait measured in years before she'd get hers back.

  • Poi-fect||

    Nothing happens by accident on TV. First, the create Jack Bauer et al to sell us on the need for the security state. Then once they have it, they create Homeland to assure us that it isn't as intrusive as all that, so stop worrying!

    TV doesn't reflect the zeitgeist. TV creates it.

  • ||

    Considering that the appeal of the WoT has been on the wane for years, long before the creation of this show, I'm going to have to take exception with that comment.

    24 was successful because of the era in which it aired, ditto Homeland. Homeland would have been blasphemous had they shown it in 2002. People would have been up in arms. Since the mood has changed through, it slides on through without controversy.

  • DC-esque||

    Mr. Suderman, just one thing: They're CIA officers, not agents. Post reporters make this mistake enough that there are folks who think they do it on purpose just to annoy members of the national security establishment, but I give any Reason writer the benefit of the doubt.

    I think that some aspects of this show (particularly the internecine wrangling) are some of the best representations of the bureaucracy out there. The funny thing is that my wife can't countenance the parts that I think are believable (having spent some time in that town), and vice versa. I guess that's something for everyone, then.

  • Robert||

    it recognizes that all such technology has limits, glitches, and flaws—and so do the decidedly imperfect individuals who run the machinery.


    Could that ever again be done as well as in the movie The Conversation?

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