As "Homeland" embarks on its seventh season -- with the end of its planned eight-year run drawing nearer -- it's worth remembering how brightly the Emmy-winning show once flamed. Against that backdrop, the Showtime drama remains plenty watchable with its cloak-and-dagger machinations, but it's hard to envision anyone lamenting that the finale came too soon.
Indeed, the series about the war against terrorism and, increasingly, the sacrifices made on the altar to it at home has gone from paralleling current events -- at time the show felt eerily prescient, as if current events were going out of their way to promote it -- to in many ways being overtaken by them. Even the latest plot, driven by an overreaching female president, somehow feels relatively pallid compared to the shenanigans playing out in Washington.
On the plus side, the new season moves beyond last year's unfortunate, protracted side plot involving Quinn, played by Rupert Friend, and plunges squarely into the machinations of President Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), whose actions against her political enemies is being called "thuggish and authoritarian," a senior aide (Linus Roache) warns her.
Meanwhile, one-time CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is working behind the scenes to thwart those actions, and help secure the release of the 200, members of the intelligence community that Keane had rounded up. That leads to a lot of entertaining tradecraft, without the patina of realism that has at times made "Homeland" feel so bracing in the past.
To its credit, the series does force the audience to question its assumptions, building a subplot around an Alex Jones-like conspiracy theorist, Brett O'Keefe (Jake Weber, elevated to series regular), whose paranoia might not be completely misplaced as he rails against Keane's "tyrannical regime."
Yet however timely the idea of an administration at war with the intelligence community might appear, at least initially, "Homeland" feels more like the mere stuff of spy novels, lacking the urgency and hyper-relevance that characterized and energized the show at its peak -- when President Obama, among others, proclaimed it his favorite TV show.
Danes and co-star Mandy Patinkin (whose character, Saul Berenson, was among those arrested as season six concluded) are such gifted actors that "Homeland" almost can't help but be entertaining, even if the program's best days are clearly behind it.
Those who have already invested six years in the series won't find anything in the opening salvo of its seventh to make them reconsider that commitment. Yet nor is there anything here, at least yet, that puts "Homeland" on a path that would suggest going out in a blaze of glory rivaling the comet-like streak that heralded its arrival.
"Homeland" premieres Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.