by Brooks Riley

142578_image_37955-cropWhat happens when an Israeli prisoner of war comes home after 17 years in a Lebanese prison? He gets interned by his own people to find out if he’s been ‘turned’ during all those years with the enemy. What happens when a US prisoner of war comes home after 8 years in captivity? He becomes a congressman! Only in America.

The difference between these two destinies illustrates perfectly what is so right about Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the magnificent Israeli TV series, and what is so wrong about Homeland, the strident, glossy, walnut-decorated US remake which Der Spiegel has described as “hysterical CIA agents in a hysterical country,”

7455564,property=imageData,v=3,CmPart=com.arte-tv.wwwI can’t blame Gideon Raff, creator, writer and director of Hatufim for selling his idea to Hollywood, but I have to wonder what he was thinking as co-scriptwriter of Homeland‘s pilot episode. His own Hatufim is a riveting piece of television verité which unfolds in an atmosphere of quiet, desperate ongoing disambiguation. Its characters are far removed from the cookie-cutter casting principles of Hollywood TV, its walking wounded and their eclectic circle of friends and family all persevering without benefit of make-up or break-down, their voices rarely raised in anger, horror or outrage. As a drama, it seethes below the surface, the fear and uncertainty discernible and deeply discomforting. I can’t wait to see the second season.

Homeland, on the other hand, can’t seem to rise above a worn-out, predictable post-9/11 scenario. To add some spice, it features bi-polar disorder as a gimmick, and mania as a vehicle for facial contortions and histrionics. Watching Claire Danes as Carrie saving the nation, you can almost hear the director say, ‘C’mon Claire, give me a grimace!’ What John Lahr (in a New Yorker puff piece) called her ‘volcanic performances’ and others, her ‘tsunami of emotion’, come across as Mt. Aetna in a teacup, in-your-face close-ups of wide eyes and twitches to make sure Carrie’s pathology gets across to the viewer.

I had seen Claire Danes only once, in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where she gave a fine performance. To give her the benefit of the doubt, her performance in Homeland may have had more to do with directorial overkill than a deficit of talent.

Having bought into the award-winningness of Homeland‘s reputation, I was deeply disappointed by the only season I saw, Season 2. It moves right along, I can say that for it. Every time a line of chunky black Chevrolet SUVs with blackened windows floated down a nameless Washington avenue, I knew there would be enough action to keep me going from episode to episode. But as a psychological thriller, it barely scratches the surface of human idiosyncracy. As a Washington insider tale, it lacks the intelligence of a House of Cards. As a spy story, it could have been told in one season. And because the show puts all its eggs in the Carrie basket, its cast of peripheral characters is remarkably unmemorable, in spite of a few stabs at side stories.

Mandy Patinkin does avuncular mentor well in a piece of typecasting with a single m.o.: making sure his Carrie gets yet another chance to show her right stuff, in spite of her diagnosis and rogue behavior (Credibility is not one of the show’s strengths). The only two performances which stand out are Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody, the ‘er-do-well former POW, whose mind (thankfully) cannot easily be read, and Morgan Saylor as his teenaged daughter Dana, whose helplessness is palpable.

I couldn’t help yearning for re-runs of MI-5, the first-rate, long-running British spy series (called Spooks in the UK) whose cast, scripts and dramaturgy stand head and shoulders above Homeland. In that series, which also packs plenty of action, betrayal and death are uncomfortably close at hand, with favorite characters dying in awful ways and being replaced by new ones whose engaging personalities and fragile loyalties keep you coming back for more. Even The Agency, the old US series from 2001 had more dramaturgical diversity than Homeland.

Judging by the homegrown Breaking Bad, Dexter and Mad Men, Hollywood is running out of ideas. Hatufim isn’t the only foreign series bought for US remake: The Bridge,The Killing, House of Cards are all done-overs, some better (House of Cards) than others. An American Borgen and other import remakes are in the works. American TV producers are trolling the world for series they can buy and endow with an American patina which can only assure that they will never be more than second best. When the British remade the Swedish Kurt Wallander crime series with an excellent Kenneth Branagh, they at least had the sense to keep it in Sweden.

Hollywood could save a lot of money by establishing a proper dubbing industry (according to an article in Variety, one executive implied that this was too much work!). In an era of globalization, Americans are astonishingly parochial when it comes to their TV viewing fare. I see highly original Scandinavian, British, French, and Italian TV series all perfectly lip-synched into German, by actors who are cast as carefully for their voices as they are for their line readings. Why have to be glued to the bottom of the screen for a subtitle, when you could sit back and enjoy these shows in your own language (if dubbed with care)—Yoram Toledano’s haunting performance in Hatufim, Sofia Helin’s dead eyes and disconcerting Asperger-generated behavior in The Bridge, Sidse Babett Knudsen’s charm offensives and tactical savvy in Borgen, Sofie Gråbøl’s single-minded, sweatered alienation in the Danish version of The Killing.

Maybe it’s time the US give up its role as the world’s Leitkultur (dominant culture). The rest of the world has learned from it and moved on.