IF 24 was essentially a live-action cartoon in which a mythical US hero stood up for the excesses of post-9/11 foreign policy,
HOMELAND offers an altogether more pessimistic take following years of futility in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loosely based on an Israeli TV series called Hatufim, it might even be considered subversive in that it openly criticises the War on Terror and knee-jerk jingoism, and presents that gleaming symbol of patriotic saintliness, the US marine, as a morally ambiguous and potentially dangerous figure. And he’s played by a Goddamn Limey too!
Not only that, it’s produced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which almost makes it feel like an apology for, well, everything.
Damian Lewis plays Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a missing/presumed dead veteran newly returned home after eight harrowing years as an al-Qaeda prisoner. Physically and emotionally scarred, he trudges awkwardly through the hollow victory of being hailed as a hero, while struggling to reconnect with a family who barely recognise him.
But is Brody all that he seems? Pugnacious CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) thinks not, having been told by an Iraqi informant that a US POW has turned to t’other side. Convinced Brody is the traitor, she defies instructions – yes, she’s a maverick – and places him under 24-hour surveillance.
As damaged in her way as Brody is in his, Mathison is an interestingly flawed heroine. Stubborn, impulsive and self-destructive, she could be taken as a metaphor for the defects inherent in US Central Intelligence – depicted as the sort of people who actually applaud themselves for successfully completing a mission. Or you could take her merely as an attractive anti-hero, it’s entirely up to you.
Driven by fine performances from its leads and the strong central mystery of whether Mathison’s voyeuristic obsession with Brody is justified, this Golden-Globe-winning drama grips from the off. Although the dialogue is a tad quotidian at times, it boasts enough urgency and intrigue to cover any minor flaws.
The same can hardly be said of LUCK, a lumberingly opaque horse racing drama in which a group of very talented people collaborate to almost non- existent effect. Produced by Michael Mann of Miami Vice and Heat renown, and devised by Deadwood creator David Milch, its great coup is the casting of Dustin Hoffman in the central role of Ace Rothstein, a taciturn career criminal intent on transforming an LA racetrack into a dollar-spinning super-casino.
With a cast which also includes Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon and Ian Hart, you’d assume the course was set for yet another essential epic from HBO.
So what went wrong?
In short, it’s monumentally boring. And baffling. I don’t have a problem with dramas which, in the manner of The Wire and Deadwood, initially feel overwhelming in their intricacy and ambition. Dense with alien slang and jargon, they require a lot of effort, but when they eventually click the rewards pay off in spades.
But Luck is far too slow and inscrutable for its own good. Rather than attempting to draw us into its unfamiliar world, it seems actively intent on alienating the layman; a slave to authenticity over strong narrative.
Whole scenes drift by in a fug of head-scratching mystery, as the various jockeys, trainers and schmucks who practically live at the track vie for garbled attention. The only saving graces are the superbly directed racing scenes, which capture the energy of the sport with cacophonous gusto.
Who knows, maybe with a bit of patience, Luck will improve in time. But there’s little here to suggest it’s worth the effort. However, if you’re a Michael Mann fan who simply can’t get enough of his stock parade of elegant silver-haired criminals suffering mutely beneath neon and glass, then knock yourself out.
Tomorrow, Channel 4, 9.30pm
Today, Sky Atlantic, 9pm
SMALL SCREEN MOVIES
Rating: **** Tuesday, ITV4, 12.45am
Based on The Who’s rock opera, this classic youth movie – which isn’t a musical, despite its source – stars Phil Daniels, right, as a Mod struggling to make sense of his involvement in the movement. It’s a propulsive ode to teenage angst, in which the compassionate bombast of The Who’s score is grounded in gritty social realism from director Franc Roddam.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN
Monday, Film4, 11:25pm
Quentin Tarantino’s fusion of action, comedy and horror, in which travellers stumble across a Mexican strip bar populated by vampires.
Thursday, ITV3, 12am
Gripping thriller from Roman Polanski, starring Harrison Ford as a man out to find his vanished wife.
Friday, Film4, 11pm
French drama from 2009 in which a young Arab man is sentenced to prison and falls in with the Corsican gang who rule the roost.