For eight years, Jack Bauer fought terrorism in a fictional world in which the real world still resonated.
 
On FOX's "24," the terrorists were fake, the politicians were fake and the adversarial nations were frequently fake, but from its premiere to its finale, 9/11 and an actual War on Terror provided an off-screen backdrop for viewers. In an era of actual paranoia and uncertainty, Jack Bauer couldn't truly keep us safe, but every Monday night, he was the living, breathing, decapitating, gun-toting embodiment of the Patriot Act.
 
In contrast, Showtime's new drama "Homeland" is set in a version of the real world, but one in which the fictional world is constantly resonating.
 
Although nobody is mentioning "Barack Obama" or "George W. Bush," the "Homeland" backdrop includes 9/11, includes the dead of Osama Bin Ladin and doesn't feature a single country called Arabistan or Freedonia. And yet, for all of the tangible horrors "Homeland" is able to evoke, what it evokes most successfully is two versions of "The Manchurian Candidate," Showtime's "Sleeper Cell," a dozen edgy conspiracy dramas from the '70s and, of course, "24."
 
Premiering on Sunday (October 2) night on Showtime, "Homeland" is a taut, marvelously acted thriller that will make you think fondly of classics in the genre, even if it doesn't necessarily make you think that hard about anything of contemporary substance.
 
More after the break...
 
We begin in Baghdad, where frazzled CIA operative Carrie Mathison is making  a desperate attempt to save an informant, she fails, but not before he whispers something in her ear. Ten months later, the words return to her as the nation cheers on the discovery of an American soldier taken prisoner during the original invasion of Iraq in 2003. 
 
The words: "An American prisoner of war has been turned."
 
Well, Carrie's no fool, so she is immediately skeptical of Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who comes back from his eight years as a POW a good deal worse for wear. He's physically scarred and emotionally scarred and he has a lot to cope with, reintroducing himself to his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) and to his two children, who barely remember him. Between the nightmares and the flashbacks and a pretty hefty helping of PTSD, it would be really difficult to tell if Brody had actually been turned, or if he's just struggling with a bevy of totally reasonable issues.
 
And while Carrie's no fool, she's got some fairly substantive problems of her own. She has a medical/psychological condition she's obviously keeping from her CIA higher-ups and years of questionable personal decisions and choices with office politics have left her with only one real ally, mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin). So when Carrie decides she's about to accuse a national hero of potentially being a ticking time bomb, she isn't coming from a position of professional strength.
 
And viewers? Well, we don't know for sure. On Sepinwall's review, I noticed that a number of people who watched the "Homeland" pilot online came away fairly convinced regarding whether or not Brody had, indeed, been turned. I find that either strange or disappointing, since I've watched three episodes now and I don't have a clue. Almost every clue we're being given in "Homeland" has been filtered through the mind of either Carrie or Brody and neither principle character counts as a reliable source of information in my book. Whether we're dealing with memories or interpretation of evidence, I don't know if I trust either of the show's ostensible heroes. There's nothing I've seen that I'm prepared to take at face value thus far and I'd almost hate to think that the creative team wants anything to be cut and dry this early. Every assumption I'm making in private -- no spoilers here -- is based on one of those predecessors I mentioned earlier, particularly the Frankenheimer "Manchurian Candidate" and the dramatically flawed, but intriguingly pragmatic "Sleeper Cell."
 
But I could be wrong. 
 
Based on an Israeli format, "Homeland" has been adapted for American TV by "24" veterans Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, with Gordon running the show. Having watched and usually enjoyed the full run of "24," I'm ready to count on "24" veterans to be able to orchestrate a certain amount of carefully meted out tension, but I'm less likely to have faith in their ability to orchestrate believable nuance. For years, "24" would generate shocking character twists basically by having characters inexplicably become entirely different people from week to week, rather than changing in organic or plausible ways. So while I'm assuming that what we see isn't what we'll eventually get with these characters, I'm worried about how surprises will develop. 
 
But that's a hypothetical future problem with "Homeland" and has nothing to do with my feelings for the three episodes I've seen, which keep twisting and twisting the psychological screws. That's where "Homeland" works so very well, rather than when more traditional thriller elements intrude. The early episodes work well because we have two main characters who may be heroes, but are every bit as likely to be dangerous to themselves and to those around them (or possibly the nation).
 
The series is sold by the performances at the center, which are instantly Emmy worthy.
 
Danes has a "Temple Grandin" Emmy on her shelf that has barely begun to gather dust, but this is easily the best performance of her career. Carrie is intelligent and aggressive, but she's also a damaged mess. Danes plays the role with every nerve exposed, crafting a character who's simultaneously incredibly competent at her job, but also unpredictably self-destructive. As Temple Grandin, Danes had an expertly compiled playbook of tics and mannerisms and they added up to a character who felt real, but this is a more thoroughly inhabited performance. Here, Danes is raw and in-the-moment and she becomes a source of suspense for viewers. As good as Danes has been in the past, she's a surprise.
 
Damian Lewis isn't a surprise. Although most viewers who know Lewis know him from excellent work in "Band of Brothers" and "The Forsyte Saga" and NBC's "Life," I'd recommend folks go check out the 2004 indie "Keane," in which Lewis gives one of the great, under-recognized performances of the past decade. As was the case with "Keane," "Homeland" asks Lewis to keep viewers in a constant state of flux as to whether he's a victim or a potential predator and very few actors can match Lewis when it comes to making serenity feel like a prelude to violence. "Homeland" doesn't need Brody to turn out to be a terrorist, because even if he's just a tortured man who wants desperately to try to be normal, he's still a volatile risk to everyone around him. 
 
In the early going, Danes and Lewis share barely any screentime, but because of Carrie's possibly-paranoid/possibly-reasonable need to keep an eye on Brody, there's a poignant and interaction-free chemistry that develops between them, enhancing their parallel journeys.
 
"Homeland" also gets excellent and understated supporting work from Patinkin and Baccarin, actors who aren't opposed to going hammy, but instead provide quiet and emotional counterpoints to the showier performances by Danes and Lewis. 
 
Like I said, I'm not convinced that I've been told the truth about what Brody's up to and how he does or doesn't relate to the terrorist act Carrie fears. And I definitely want to see that through and to follow the twists and turns. But even if Gordon and the creative team can't stick the landing on the show's thriller aspects, I still enthusiastically recommend "Homeland" for Danes and Lewis, who may be providing TV's best current one-two acting punch this side of the incomparable Cranston-Paul pairing on "Breaking Bad." 
 
[To quickly clarify that last sentence: When "Justified" is on-air, Olyphant/Goggins is a competitive one-two punch. Hamm/Moss on "Mad Men" can be competitive.  I always loved me some Chandler/Britton on "Friday Night Lights." None of those shows are airing right now. Lewis and Danes are damn good.]
 
"Homeland" premieres on Showtime at 10 p.m. on Sunday (October 2).