The biggest problem for Showtime's "Homeland": A serious case of Persistent Disbelief Syndrome
As Homeland winds towards a promisingly explosive finale next Sunday night, some critics are tied in knots over what they think are the show's outlandish plot twists and revelations.
But in watching last Sunday's episode, that stuff didn't bother me nearly as much as a typical TV convention that ties me in knots:
I'm calling it Persistent Disbelief Syndrome.
It's that setup in a show where almost no one believes the star character, despite the fact that he or she is almost always right and has a really long track record of being right.
For a while, in Homeland, the writers managed to turn that formula on its ear by having the lead character, Claire Danes' bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, distrust herself when her grand conclusion -- that Damian Lewis' war hero Nick Brody was a sleeper agent working for terrorists -- seemed wrong.
Only the viewers knew she was actually right. And that led to delicious moments when we, as viewers, were sitting at home shouting at Carrie to trust herself. Because only we knew how on-target her instincts actually were.
Flash forward to the end of this season, and Homeland is drowning in a serious case of PDS.
Everyone, especially Carrie, now knows she was right about Brody and he's been turned into an double-double-agent asset for the CIA. Still, the other characters, especially David Harewood's butt-covering CIA director David Estes, must doubt Carrie's instincts to create conflict in each episode. Carrie is not only fighting the terrorists and her own self-doubt, she's fighting the jerks within the CIA who are just itching to marginalize and discredit her for their own reasons.
But, since the show began, Carrie is the only one who has had those patented "magic moments" on TV shows where she connects the dots to figure out details no one else can about what the terrorists are planning.
It was Carrie, of course, who originally figured out that Brody was working secretly with Middle Eastern terrorists to try and assassinate the vice president. It was Carrie who rushed into a building in Beirut, as men with guns were trying to hunt her and fellow CIA agents down, to grab the vital evidence which eventually proved her theory.
It was Carrie who figured out how to play Brody so he would turn on his terrorist compatriots. And, Sunday night, we saw it was Carrie who figured out that the show's Bin Laden, terrorist Abu Nazir, had not actually left an abandoned warehouse where he had been holding her captive -- forcing security forces to search the building yet again until she uncovered the place where Nazir was hiding.
If you ask me, the show's most outlandish element is the way no one else makes important discoveries about the terrorists except Carrie -- its as if America's worldwide intelligence network has just one person smart enough to figure out their tactics and plans. And that person is an unstable, impulsive analyst just off electro shock therapy and an affair with a soldier-turned-terrorist who somehow got elected to Congress.
The unbelievable plot stuff -- Carrie just accepts that her sleeper agent beau killed the vice president of the United States, Brody is a Congressman who never seems to be in Congress, Estes knows Brody tried to kill the vice president once but does nothing when the VP dies of a heart attack in the same room with the guy -- doesn't bother me so much.
Even the way Homeland has turned Brody's daughter into a mopey, annoying teen who can't get over killing a woman in a hit-and-run during a joyride with the vice president's son feels like a forgivable sin -- though it has made an irritable afterthought of a character who promised to be so much better than the throwaway teens on most adult-oriented TV dramas.
After a while, Homeland is like Lost; you just have to go along with the ride and try not to think too much about a storyline with more holes than an average piece of Swiss cheese.
But the PDS stuff drives me crazy. Someone who has been right as Carrie has about something so important should not be ignored. Every time Estes gives her that skeptical look, she should say to him: "You're the guy who put somebody with an exploding vest in a concrete bunker with the vice president, jerkface! And I'm the one who figured it out."
In truth, somebody savvy as Estes should be using her insights as much as possible, bringing her close and exploiting her to his advantage until Nazir is caught and he can dump her. But to serve the story, he has to doubt her abilities, even as her insights keep piling up. The writers do a savvy job of damaging her -- she sleeps with Brody in a room under surveillance by the agency and incorrectly accuses a fellow agent of working with Nazir. But it still seems silly how often the guys in charge ignore her insights when she's the only one who ever figures out important connections in time.
PDS is also making it awfully tough for me to watch CBS' Sherlock Holmes remake Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller is magnetic as a new-school, super-perceptive Holmes, solving cases for free as a consultant to the NYPD, aided by Lucy Liu's sober coach-turned-confidant Joan Watson.
And in every episode, despite Holmes' impressive and growing track record of solving impossible cases, the detectives who work with him are skeptical of his unorthodox methods and doubt him when his conclusions seem outlandish. By now, they should know -- Holmes is going to figure it out, just let him do his thing. But to create a sense of drama and conflict, they have to doubt and resist him, even as he uncovers every major twist in every major case they investigate.
PDS nearly turned me off another show I loved, CBS' supernatural procedural Medium. Patricia Arquette's middle class mom was a secret psychic whose abilities helped the District Attorney's office in Phoenix, Arizona solve countless cases. But all too often, her insights would be downplayed or ignored, building drama even as I sat at home wondering: Hasn't she proved herself by now?
I'm sure that feeling will nag again on Sunday, as we learn whether Estes' plan to kill Brody and sideline Carrie's mentor Saul -- the only other guy who seems to figure out anything in time -- works out.
But for the future of an often-amazing show, I'm hoping producers figure how to get over their nagging case of Persistent Disbelief Syndrome.
It's the kind of disease which can prove fatal if untreated long enough.