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Thursday, December 20, 2012

I know counterterrorism and the CIA -- and almost everything in Homeland is ridiculous. But I'm still watching.

Spoiler Alert

I know counterterrorism and the CIA -- and almost everything in Homeland is ridiculous. But I'm still watching.


Every era needs its heroes and villains. Eighty years ago, gangsters and G-men were the Depression's meme and the funny pages of newspapers across the country had comic strips devoted to the dispensation of law, order, and justice. The standard story arc involved pillars of probity like the lantern-jawed lawman, Dick Tracy, whose one mission in life was to bring to justice a variety of nefarious malefactors. Invariably, these criminals had evocative names like B.B. Eyes, Prune Face, Lips Marlis, and Flatop Jones. And their pursuit claimed every waking moment of Dick Tracy's life -- at great personal cost and to the exclusion of any amorous relationships. Over the course of weeks, and sometimes months, a series of three or four black and white panels on weekdays (and double that on Sundays) conveyed the cleverly executed, but flawed crime; the investigation and epiphany; the criminal's desperate flight and lawman's relentless chase; before climaxing with the inevitable denouement of the arrest or death of that strip's reprobate lawbreaker.
In 21st-century America, however, no one reads the papers anymore and while crime dramas are still a staple of cable television, gangsters and crooks are no longer America's public enemy number one. Today, even in our post-Osama bin Laden world, it's terrorists who embody our worst fears -- and stereotypes. Although some come from this country, their ringleaders are invariably shadowy foreigners with dark skin, heavy beards, bushy eyebrows, and strange sounding names like "Abu Nazir." Nor are they any longer pursued exclusively by stalwart, upstanding, manifestly WASP males. Instead, emotional, mentally unstable women and brainy Jews -- commanded by an appropriately diverse melting pot of Americans representing a variety of races and creeds (some of whom are as morally compromised as the terrorists they are hunting) -- are our flawed heroes. This, at least, is what the hit Showtime television series, Homeland, would have us believe.
It is ironic that, at a time when most Americans are bummed out by the war on terror, have largely forgotten about Iraq, and desperate to turn their collective backs on the Middle East and focus on nation building at home, this series ceaselessly reminds us of what most of us would so dearly like to ignore. Like a child's need to believe in monsters or ghosts, perhaps, Americans are riveted by Homeland and captivated by the prospect of terrorist blowback -- mostly because of the series' two maddeningly compelling central characters, the ├╝ber-CIA agent Carrie Mathison, magisterially played by Claire Danes, and the U.S. Marine sergeant turned terrorist, Nicholas Brody, brought believably to life by British actor Damian Lewis.
But as much fun as Homeland is to everyone (critics, bloggers and the inside-the-Beltway set alike), it is also profoundly annoying to anyone who has studied terrorism or worked at the CIA, given the fantastical depiction of both terrorists and the intelligence officers who pursue them. Homeland's implausible plot twists and hackneyed story lines, cartoonish characters, and contrived cliffhangers are already a staple of Internet blogs, virtual newsmagazines, and discussions around the office water cooler. But living and working in Washington, D.C., it's the cardboard terrorists, conniving bureaucrats, and all the other attendant caricatures of the war on the terror's dramatic personae that, until this past Sunday's season finale, would elicit the greatest sighs and most audible moans on Monday mornings.
Take Abu Nazir, the series' arch-villain. The actor Navid Negahban looks more like a GQ model than any of the al Qaeda terrorists who have surfaced -- and, in many cases, have also been killed -- over the past decade. Contrast his nattily-knotted keffiyeh (men's headscarf) and sharply tailored salwar kameez, his svelte and cerebral appearance and haughty demeanor, for example, to the well-known photograph of the bedraggled, unshaven slovenly-looking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 112001, attacks who was captured in 2003 wearing a dirty white t-shirt that barely covered his protruding pot belly. Or how about his maniacal nephew, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, whose mug shot depicts nothing grander than a mindless, homicidal fanatic? Crazed killer, yes. Suave, articulate terrorist intellect like Abu Nazir? Not quite

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