Sunday, 22 September 2013

TV6: Homeland, 24 and Spooks (MI-5)

The past decade has seen the release of three popular TV shows about counter-terrorism. Homeland is just starting its third season, while 24 and Spooks have finished their long runs. I have watched every episode of 24 and Spooks and just finished the second season of Homeland on DVD (the only way I watch TV). Because of their subject matter, my rather strong political/ideological (and yes, theological) views always come into play when I watch these shows, either adding to my enjoyment of them or subtracting from that enjoyment. With that in mind, let’s begin (I will do this chronologically).

The first of these shows to air (in 2001) was 24, starring Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland as the relentless Jack Bauer. 24 had the ingenious hook of being shown in real time, with each of the 24-episode seasons taking place over the course of one 24-hour day. This must have presented a huge challenge for the writers, but they were usually up for the task, delivering clever, suspenseful and fast-paced episodes on a regular basis. Sutherland, whom I have always appreciated as an actor, was perfectly-cast as Bauer and his acting was strong enough to carry the show when fellow-actors did not fare as well. 

While I obviously enjoyed 24 enough to keep watching to the bitter end, I was constantly infuriated by it, especially by its use of torture. I even christened the show “Torture Inc.” after the first few seasons. Since I consider the use of torture to be one of the most heinous and inhumane of acts and do not believe it is ever justified, regardless of the circumstances, I was appalled at the way the characters in 24 used it regularly as a legitimate means of extracting information. Experts question the efficacy of torture, but even if they thought it a reliable means of extracting information, I would always be opposed to its use and would certainly consider any government which used torture to be both barbaric and inhumane. 

One of the reasons I continued to watch 24 in spite of the torture was what I knew about Sutherland’s political views. Since Sutherland was also one of the show’s key producers, I kept hoping that his left-leaning political views would show up in the show one day. In this I was largely disappointed, though I twice heard (on video) Sutherland defend 24 as being a show which challenged many of the Bush government’s views on things. Sutherland also stated publicly that he was, like me, always opposed to the use of torture, though how he would then allow himself to be so closely associated with a show that I call ‘an ode to torture’ is beyond me. 24 gets *** for its unique premise, though some seasons do not deserve even ** (season four was despicable and gets no stars at all).

Spooks first aired in 2002. It concerned the activities of an elite group of Great Britain’s MI-5 agents, tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on British soil. I watched it at the same time as 24 and was constantly amazed at how different these two shows were, in spite of their similar themes. To be clear, in every way imaginable, Spooks was immeasurably superior to 24. It was far more grown up, far more intelligent, far more real, far more compassionate, far better acted, far more suspenseful, and so on. So as not to spoil things for prospective viewers, I will not mention some of the ways Spooks achieved this, but I will say that on the few occasions Spooks depicted torture, it took torture tremendously seriously and conveyed the message that no civilized government should ever use it. 

Spooks was never afraid to challenge or even expose the views of its own government and regularly (though not consistently) humanized terrorists. In my opinion, Spooks was one of the finest TV shows ever made and has a place in my top-ten favourite shows since the 1960’s. A very solid ****.

The new kid on the block is Homeland, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, three of the best actors to ever do TV. Unlike the other two shows, Homeland is cable TV and thus has much higher production values. With its incredible cast giving flawless performances, its brilliant writers, its great cinematography and a female protagonist struggling with serious mental illness as she combats terrorism (for the CIA), Homeland stands head and shoulders above 24 (though it was made by some of the same people) and most of everything else that’s on TV these days (including Breaking Bad). This is compelling TV at its finest, except …

Except that I am quite worried about its political/ideological direction. I have this niggling feeling in my gut that the ways in which terrorists and Muslims are portrayed are dangerous (even wrong), though there is regular evidence of thoughtfulness in this portrayal. If it were not for the presence of Patinkin, I would be even more worried. Like Sutherland, Patinkin is a lefty. He is also a Jew with a great love for his people and his heritage. And yet I have seen him on stage publicly challenging the actions of the Israeli government and the occupation of Palestine. Patinkin exudes integrity, intelligence and compassion, even in most (if not all) of the characters he has played in film and TV, including the role of Saul Berenson on Homeland. I want to believe that Patinkin would not remain involved in a show that reinforces stereotypes and dehumanizes, and so far the mistakes on Homeland have not been overly blatant, though Homeland does not have anywhere near the courage of Spooks (there are critiques of the CIA but nowhere near enough). Homeland gets **** for now, but I’ll be updating that every season as necessary. 

As for the involvement of Fox in both 24 and Homeland, I will just say it can’t help.

Comparing 24 to Homeland is like comparing an Aveo to a Cadillac. But Spooks is a Lamborghini (or at least a Rolls-Royce) and is the only one of the three I can recommend without reservation. 

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