One show could not be more in sync with the times — a meditation on what we really should fear in post-9/11 America and where the responsibility for that fear should lie.
The other program feels more personal and less of the moment, aging toward a scheduled end like a champion boxer headed for retirement, looking for just one last knockout before the final bell rings.
These series are Showtime's Homeland and Dexter, returning for their second and seventh seasons, respectively, tonight.
Together they may represent the glorious past and promising future of TV's second-largest premium cable operation — a clue to what galvanizes the most discerning TV audiences today and how much that has changed from what came before.
Depth and complexity
Homeland is the series poised as Showtime's future, honored with a host of Emmys for best drama series, writing in a drama series, lead actor in a drama series and lead actress in a drama series.
It also doesn't hurt to have an endorsement from President Barack Obama, who admitted he was a fan, catching up on episodes when his wife and kids think he's working.
Homeland's action focuses on an American soldier rescued from captivity in the Middle East, secretly transformed into a conflicted covert agent for the terrorists who once held him prisoner.
British actor Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, Life) is the kinetic talent who helps makes such an outlandish story line seem plausible, leveraging a note-perfect Yank accent he sometimes maintains offscreen just to stay in practice.
Lewis plays rescued Marine-turned-Congressman Nick Brody as an earnest man who converted to Islam while in captivity after befriending a boy eventually killed in a U.S. drone strike. His goals are noble — he doesn't want to see fellow Muslims killed by America's war machine — but his methods put him in league with a man considered to be this story's version of Osama bin Laden.
As tonight's episode opens, Brody's a heartbeat away from being a heartbeat away from the presidency, asked by the vice president (Law & Order: Criminal Intent alum Jamey Sheridan) to consider joining him in a run for the White House as the new V.P.
"Brody made a mission statement at the end of the first season, saying he wanted a nonviolent political subversion of American policy," Lewis said. "He would like to think he's in control of his own destiny … but essentially, he's everybody's b----."
Brody's weakness is ex-CIA agent Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, perhaps the only actor on this show who outshines Lewis. Danes' Mathison is an obsessively dedicated, yet bipolar analyst who kept her mental illness secret for much of the show's first season.
By the end of the run, she realized Brody had been turned by his captors. But after undergoing electric shock therapy, she seems to have forgotten why she concluded Brody was a danger.
"Carrie represents a sort of broken, slightly sort of hobbling West at the moment," Lewis added. "Brody represents a strong antiwar message; the effects of war on an individual, how that can poison an individual and then poison people around them."
But the best series ask larger questions, and Lewis suggests a ton of them have surfaced in Homeland. "Can nation states commit acts of terrorism?" he asked. "Do you believe they can? How do we perpetrate our war on terror? Was it justified? It just goes on and on."
Like our real-life situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are no easy answers. Brody is a man who loves his family and served his country as a soldier, yet works with those who have killed fellow U.S. fighters.
Based on an Israeli TV series called Hatufim, or "abductees," and available on Hulu.com as Prisoners of War (hulu.com/prisoners-of-war), Homeland navigates issues of guilt and villainy very carefully. Even the good guys betray loved ones and even the terrorists have passionate reasons for why they kill.
"We try, as best we can, to ask the questions rather than answer them," said Homeland executive producer Alex Gansa, a former writer on The X-Files who walked away with his own writing Emmy last Sunday. "If there's one thing we've tried hard to do across all our characters is to give them depth and complexity and rationale … so that people will maybe understand a different point of view, even though they may disagree."
Approaching its swan song
Dexter is another series asking lots of questions this season, including the biggest one: What will hiding-in-plain-sight serial killer Dexter Morgan do now that his sister has discovered his secret?
For six seasons, Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) has played Morgan as a meek blood-spatter technician for the Miami police who moonlights as a killer of murderers. But his police lieutenant sister, Debra — portrayed by Hall's ex-wife Jennifer Carpenter — stumbled on him murdering the villain of last season's episodes, a religious serial killer played by Colin Hanks.
"I think, both for Dexter and Deb, the revelation is simultaneously a huge relief and as terrifying as anything that could happen," said Hall, speaking to a knot of journalists at a reception for CBS and Showtime shows in Los Angeles.
"Dexter's someone who tells himself a story about who he is and how he's managed his compulsions that allow him to feel justified, if not even righteous, in how he behaves," the actor added. "Now he's wondering, what happens when your deepest secret isn't your own anymore? And what does love have the capacity to transcend?"
Watching Hall at the party, he looks more relaxed than he ever seems during these things.
In years past, he has faced the press just after successful cancer treatment (he revealed struggling with a treatable form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in early 2010) and after the end of his marriage to Carpenter just before their two-year anniversary.
But the actor's ease seems to come from a knowledge that current plans include winding up Dexter after the eighth season, definitively concluding a show Hall himself admits he expected to end years ago.
It also feels like a bit of handoff with Homeland. For years, Dexter was the Showtime series with awards-show attention, popular awareness and can-you-believe-it appeal.
In recent years, as the nation struggles through recession and the Middle East seems forever on the verge of meltdown, the straightforward plotlines and suspense of Dexter appear a little less adequate for the times. With Homeland waiting in the wings, there may be no better time for Dexter to start its swan song.
So does that mean Hall's ready to walk away from Morgan's bag of knives?
"No, but I think I will be when we get there," he said, smiling a little. "To move forward without (Dexter) on the horizon anymore, that's kind of a compelling notion for me."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.