Political shows are often more staffed than inhabited, and “Homeland” is dominated by two of its fraught main characters — Carrie and her person of interest, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). For latecomers, let’s keep last season’s twists under wraps. But suffice it to say: The agent with deep suspicions and the war hero with the al-Qaeda contacts are headed for another collision. Last season, he refused to self-destruct and is now a congressman, while she blew up her career and now grades blue books as an English language instructor. Still, the two are free radicals in search of a tight bond.
The “Homeland” creators have invested in cagey characters but also in the audience’s intelligence. The new season, which begins Sunday night, looks ahead to a gloomy and looming scenario — Israel attacks four of Iran’s nuclear sites, and throughout the Middle East, enemies of the West rise up. That geopolitical tremor is all too plausible. Later, a story line that finds a radical Sunni Muslim terrorist in cahoots with the Shiite Hezbollah movement is less believable.
More than world events, it’s Brody and Carrie who give the series its combustible ingredients. As revealed in season one, Brody embraced Islam while a captive and his traumas convinced him that he had no other solace. Shrewdly, the writers employed a drone strike to radicalize him. Viewers can better evaluate Brody’s devious behavior because they’ve seen the young corpses he has seen. Similarly, Carrie devolved into an erratic, rule-breaking rogue in last season’s sweat-flecked finale. And viewers stay connected to her throughout; for all her fluttering impulses, she pinned pieces together to make a world-rocking discovery.
The new season adds fire under some simmering story lines, but never to the temperature of potboiler ridiculousness. Is Mandy Patinkin’s Saul all that he seems — a mentor as calming as Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”? Will Brody’s fellow Marines accept his reluctance to investigate the death of Tom Walker, the sharpshooter whose aim was off? Will viewers balk at the arrival of a duplicitous journalist with ties to terror leader Abu Nazir and some sway over Brody?
Washington should be more of a character in the drama, and its architectural shadows are so absent they’re glaring. While Israel stands in for Lebanon in some pricey location shots, sleepy Charlotte barely captures the federal city’s grandeur, especially when bullets zipped through what is called Farragut Square. No one needs the skyline cliches of dome and obelisk, but the show lacks some breakneck rush across the Key Bridge, as in “No Way Out.”