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'Homeland' mirrors the Gilad Shalit news

Damien

Sometimes, television stories are ripped from today’s headlines — maybe even tomorrow’s.

That’s the case with the critically acclaimed Showtime thriller “Homeland” and its Israeli forerunner this week after the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit,  who was captured by Hamas and held prisoner for five years. The American series, which has been one of the premium channel’s highest-performing freshman drama series in nearly a decade, is based on a current Israeli program called “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War). Both programs center on soldiers as they struggle to re-embrace their former lives after years of brutal captivity.

“As every Israeli citizen, I watched the release of Shalit with excitement and happiness,” said Gideon Raff, who created the Israeli series and serves as an executive producer on its Americanized cousin. “The return home of my characters are very similar to what happened in real life this week.”

Shalit’s negotiated release, which came in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, is not the only recent international event to overlap with the fictional series. Earlier this week, Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi was killed — an event that came six months after the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan. And last week the FBI accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. Many of these startling events will play out in “Homeland,” but for spoiler reasons, executives do not want to release specific details.

These shows are hardly the first to enliven their series with the news of the day. The real-time Fox thriller “24,” legal drama “Law & Order” and others based stories, entire episodes, even seasons, on real events. But the plots of “Homeland” seem to have anticipated the news.

“It’s amazing how close the show has been. It’s going to continue because there are things that have happened recently in the news that are going to be in the show,” said David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment.

In addition to its obvious thriller aspects, “Homeland,” which premiered earlier this month, explores classic themes that hold a particular relevance in a post-9/11, post-Bin Laden world. Through its two main characters — a rescued U.S. Marine (Damian Lewis) captured and tortured by terrorists for eight years and an ends-justifies-the-means CIA agent who suspects he’s been turned (Claire Danes) — the show examines the tension between freedom and security, and ultimately asks who we are as Americans.

“The Patriot Act; the war in Iraq, where a big part of the U.S. population feels the government lied to them to go to war; the torturing of people outside U.S. soil; waterboarding — all those things” prompted citizens to ask “if the government is protecting the country or killing its values,” noted Raff, a former Israeli paratrooper.

The subject of prisoner of war swaps is an especially wrenching one for Israel. In part because of the country’s small size and widespread military service, when an Israeli soldier is captured it’s like it happens to everyone, said Raff.

“It’s such a painful subject because you’re releasing more than a thousand people who have killed hundreds and hundreds of Israelis, and they are going to return to their old activities,” said Raff. “But Israelis cannot look at the Shalit family and say, ‘No, we’re not going to strike that deal that can bring him home.’ It’s just something Israelis can’t do.”

The hardest part of Shalit’s return, as with his fictional counterparts, will be psychological, added Raff. Nearly all prisoners are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, whose sufferers usually have difficulty trusting and maintaining intimate personal relationships. In “Homeland,” for instance, Lewis’ character is alienated from his wife and often oddly re-creates his captivity by sleeping on the floor and crouching in private moments in a dark corner for a sense of comfort.

From strictly a storyteller’s viewpoint, Raff, who works closely on the American series with show runners Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza, welcomes the international intrigue.

“It’s a cool thing for anyone that loves espionage and thrillers,” said Raff. “There’s something sad about the Cold War ending and all the good stories that left with it. These events are far-fetched thrillers, and suddenly they’re happening. It plays into the whole paranoid environment we live in.”

Paranoia seeped into America after 9/11, but it’s far deeper in Israeli society, said Raff. “You can see it in America in airports,” said the 39-year-old, who splits his time between the two countries. “But in Israel you go to a mall, a theater, an office building, a restaurant, a bar, you get checked. Everywhere. That’s the environment. When you see someone with a long coat on in the summer, you don’t think he’s homeless, you think he’s about to explode.”

There’s been no official word yet about ordering a second season for the Showtime show, but its fate doesn’t seem to be in question.

“It’s on its way to being a big hit for us,” said Nevins. “I’m not sure exactly when we’ll do it, but I don’t think there’s much suspense about another season.”

Also:

Creative Minds: Jane Espenson on 'Once Upon a Time' and 'Buffy'

DirecTV adds 'Hit and Miss' to its original-programming slate

Late Night: Jon Stewart baffled by GOP response to Kadafi's death

— Martin Miller

Photo: Damien Lewis stars as a rescued POW in Showtime's psychological thriller "Homeland." Credit: Kent Smith / Showtime

 
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