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.