Is Homeland Suffering From Performance Anxiety?

One of my favourite films growing up was There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble. It’s not a great movie by any measure – although it does feature early performances from some of the best actors working today – but I was young, football mad and I identified with the main character.

Released in 2000, the film centred on its eponymous hero, a shy, socially-inept fifteen-year-old who dreamed of playing football for Manchester City. Although he showed great potential when practicing on his own, whenever he played in front of a crowd he’d invariably loose his confidence and start treating the football as though it was a flaming bag of excrement that he needed to get rid of as quickly and inelegantly as humanly possible.

The reason this story resonated with me was because I too struggled to be myself in public. For some reason even the most mundane of social interactions could transform me into a quivering mass of flailing limbs and near-silent utterances. Why this happened I’m not sure, at some point I just became painfully aware of other people’s perception of my actions. Once I realised this it became harder to control and turned into a self-perpetuating cycle: the more I tried not to be anxious, the more I made it worse.

While I eventually grew out of this problem, the psychology behind social and performance anxiety has continued to fascinate me, and I’m beginning to think there may be a TV equivalent. I think Homeland suffers from this more than most.

When it debuted in late 2011, the Showtime political-thriller-cum-psychological-drama was the most lauded show on TV. Homeland felt like it was at the forefront of the war on terror, being the first to bring the threat to America’s shores with its dangerous game of cat and mouse between bi-polar CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, a former prisoner of war who may or may not have been turned by the enemy.

The plots were loaded with intrigue and drama as our alliances fluctuated on a weekly basis, and the show was rightly adored by critics and viewers alike, scoring several awards and a slew of high profile fans – including POTUS himself, Barack Obama.

The expectation was that Homeland would go on to join the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. However, what followed was two seasons of creative missteps as the writers focused on the doomed romance of Carrie and Brody and tried to pad out an increasingly threadbare plot by detailing the trite misadventures of Dana Brody – surely the most despised fictional teen since this guy.

It felt like the show was treading water, desperately flinging every idea into the water in the hope that it would float, and many fans would perhaps have been happy to see the show sink without a trace after the season three finale when Carrie brought the story to a close by scribbling a star on the CIA’s memorial wall to commemorate the late Nicholas Brody.

But, of course, that was never going to happen. The fact remains that Homeland is still Showtime’s biggest ratings success and will ultimately continue until that stops being the case, leaving the writers with no choice but to attempt a reboot in season four.

And it worked, too, for a short time at least. The first episode of this season, in which Carrie, newly installed as the CIA’s station manager in Kabul, oversees a botched drone strike that kills over 40 civilians, was a taut, breathless return to form for the series. But then came episode two to snuff out the rejuvenated spark before it had begun with a soporific return to Langley that served only to turn the audience against Carrie thanks to a misjudged attempt to drown her baby.

This sums up the show now: occasionally brilliant, but mostly not. And in truth it has been a long time since Homeland was actually exciting to watch.

This is where performance anxiety comes in. A show as big as Homeland naturally garners a lot of media attention, with each season preceded by a raft of articles (much like this one) asking if this will be the year the show gets back its mojo. It must be impossible for the writers to ignore such constant scrutiny and that seems to show in their writing. There’s a crushing self-awareness to the scripts that suggests the writers are trying hard to rediscover what made the show great but just can’t quite get it right. And like all bouts of performance anxiety, this awareness becomes a self-defeating cycle that is impossible to escape.

It’s possible that, like me, the show will grow out of its slump, working away at the kinks until it hits its stride again. But, barring a complete recast and change of writing staff, that seems unlikely. More probable is that the show will continue until its audience finally starts to dwindle and Showtime decides to pull the plug. An ignominious end for a once impervious show.

Then again, maybe the writers will stumble across a kindly old lady who sells magic football boots that cure anxiety. It worked for Jimmy Grimble, after all.


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