Claire Danes delivers a split-second facial expression that's such an exquisite expression of terror/crazy/euphoria near the end of the "Homeland" season premiere (titled, appropriately, "The Smile") that you have to feel sorry for other actresses who might compete in the Emmy Awards a year from now. Even though she just won a trophy for her role in the show's first season -- which itself won the Emmy for best drama series and a lead actor Emmy for co-star Damian Lewis -- Ms. Danes may well be on her way to another win.
Showtime's suspenseful terrorism drama, "Homeland," returns for its second season at 10 p.m. Sunday, just as taut a drama as it was in its first year.
When viewers last saw Ms. Danes as mentally unstable Carrie Mathison, she had lost her job as a CIA agent and seemed unlikely ever to regain it. But if that were the case, there'd be no more episodes of "Homeland," so producers found a clever way to bring her back into the agency in Sunday's season premiere.
A former asset makes contact with the CIA but will talk only to Carrie. So Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and David Estes (David Harewood) re-enlist Carrie's aid after Israel bombs Iran's nuclear facilities and a riot erupts outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Yes, at times "Homeland" can feel a touch too real.
And then, in other moments, not so much.
There's a pivotal scene in the new season's second episode when newly minted congressman Nicholas Brody (Mr. Lewis, "Band of Brothers") is invited into a top secret, super-sensitive meeting on an ongoing mission. It's difficult to believe he'd really be admitted to the meeting given the nature of his relationship with the target. It's a scene that feels more like "24," a series many of the "Homeland" writers previously worked on.
"Homeland" truly is the successor series to "24"; it's another drama that often features ticking-clock scenarios, but "Homeland" benefits from a high-gloss sheen, the result of superlative performances and its presence on Showtime.
It also helps that there are only 13 episodes per season, not 24, allowing for tighter plotting and less running in place. Sunday's premiere includes a Brody revelation that lesser series would have dragged out for another dozen episodes.
At its heart, "Homeland" is a character-driven serial (aka a prime-time soap). That may not always be evident in scenes of Carrie being chased through the streets of Beirut, but it's obvious in scenes that linger on Brody's daughter at school and her reaction to learning last season that her father is a practicing Muslim.
Not that genre labels should matter. What's most important is that "Homeland" provides a smart, thrilling hour of entertainment for the next 12 weeks.
At a late July press conference for "Homeland," executive producer Alex Gansa said the season premiere was built around Carrie's terror/crazy/euphoria moment at the end of the episode.
"The whole episode was constructed around someone who was very reluctant and reticent to get back involved," he said. "She's in a much more sort of stable place emotionally, the beneficiary of six months of psychiatric care, professional help for a condition that she's never been treated for before. So that there was this real reluctance to get back in the field, yet a pull to do the work. And then when she finds herself there, it invigorates her, and she gets high on the action. So the whole episode was constructed around that particular moment, and Claire has a wicked smile on her, doesn't she?"
Carrie still has a lot of self-doubt as the season begins. She says she's never felt more right than when she suspected Brody of being a terrorist, which he is, but she doesn't know that.
"I think she probably did have some suspicion that maybe her condition was responsible for her genius, and I think that's probably true for a lot of people with the condition," Ms. Danes said. "But I think she will find a deeper confidence that she can tame it and remain as brilliant and forward thinking as she would like to be."
Look for the key to Carrie's deeper confidence to be revealed at the end of the second episode of season two. Carrie's newfound confidence also may lead to more turmoil for Brody, who seems shocked in the season premiere to be back doing dirty work for terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban).
"Brody made a mission statement at the end of the first season saying he wanted a nonviolent political subversion of American policy," Mr. Lewis said. "He would like to think he's in control of his own destiny. He absolutely won't be, is my prediction for this season, and I think he will live in a state of heightened anxiety and paranoia and uncertainty. ... He's more, I think, knowingly juggling balls this season. ... He's pretty [screwed]."
As for the role "Homeland" plays in American culture, particularly when real world events get ahead of the storytelling, Mr. Gansa said it's something the writers keep in mind.
"We do everything we can in terms of writing the scripts and shooting the scripts to make this thing feel believable. Now, whether that has some sort of negative political consequence in the country, I don't think so only because we also try, as best we can, to ask the questions rather than answer them," he said. "If there's one thing we've tried hard to do across all our characters is to give them depth and complexity and rationale for behaving the way that they do so that people will maybe understand a different point of view even though they may disagree with how that point of view translates into action."
For Showtime subscribers who want to catch up on the first season of "Homeland," Showtime will air a season one marathon beginning at noon Saturday.
Setting aside my long-held impression that Showtime's "Dexter" (9 p.m. Sunday) outlived its premise several seasons back, Sunday's seventh season premiere actually takes the serial killer drama in a new, potentially interesting direction.
At the end of last season, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) was in the midst of a killing when his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), walked in on him. Now his secret life as a serial killer is no longer a secret to the person he's closest to. Sunday's episode picks up right where the sixth season finale left off and although Dexter makes efforts to explain away what he's done, the show wisely allows Deb to act as her usual dogged self.
By the end of the hour, Deb learns way more about Dexter than he expects her to and the story seems poised to move inextricably forward.
CBS's "The Good Wife" returns Sunday (9 p.m., KDKA-TV) with the first of three strong episodes that advance the story of Kalinda's dangerous estranged husband (Marc Warren), a new legal challenge for Alicia's family, and Will's (Josh Charles) return from his suspension from practicing law.
In addition, Lockhart/Gardner gets a quiet, unreadable bankruptcy trustee played with officious panache by Nathan Lane. And the campaign for Illinois governor heats up with Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) hit by a new potential scandal in the Oct. 14 episode.
Hallmark Channel kicks off new daytime programming Monday with two new weekday series. Marie Osmond hosts "Marie" (noon weekdays) with Betty White as a guest on Monday's premiere.
Mark Steines, formerly of "Entertainment Tonight," and Paige Davis, formerly of "Trading Spaces," host "Home & Family" (10 a.m. weekdays), a home improvement/lifestyle show.
"Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity" (9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, WQED-TV), based on the best-selling book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, examines the oppression of women and girls around the world. And it uses American celebrities as viewers' entry into what can be upsetting stories of abuse.
Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Diane Lane, America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde are among the actresses who travel to foreign locations to meet women and hear their stories.
"When we talked about bringing Meg or Diane [it ] was not that they should be experts or that they would know about this but more that they would be the eyes and ears, that they would be witnesses and that they would help the audience to find a way in," said executive producer/director Maro Chermayeff at a PBS press conference at July's TCA press tour.
Ms. Ryan said she's happy to use her celebrity to bring attention to such a global issue.
"All you know is that there are occasions where [the] spotlight is on you," she said. "You can just saddle up next to something smart and important and that will get some attention."
The new TV season has begun and I'll offer a PGU course -- that's Post-Gazette University -- called TV 101, 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies.
We'll discuss how TV shows get developed, why shows are put on the air, why they're canceled and how the TV business works generally. We'll watch clips from shows that have been retooled, and of course there will be time for a live TV Q&A session.
The cost is $35 and you can register online at http://old.post-gazette.com/PGU or by calling 412-263-1302.
Lifetime has renewed "Army Wives" for a seventh season, but there's no word on which actors will be back: "Cast announcements will be made closer to the start of production," said a Lifetime publicist.
TNT has renewed "Major Crimes" for a 15-episode second season to air next summer.
Following on strong ratings for its new season, NBC renewed "The Voice" for two more cycles to air in spring and fall 2013.
USA has re-upped "Royal Pains," "White Collar" and "Covert Affairs" for an additional season each.
And TLC renewed its hit "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" for additional episodes plus three holiday specials to air this year around Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The fifth season of "Flashpoint" debuts at 11 p.m. Oct. 16 on Ion (WINP, Channel 16). ... CMT will resurrect Dog the Bounty Hunter in a new series, "Dog," that continues his adventures as a bounty hunter. ... Public television's LGBT newsmagazine "In the Life" will air its final episode this December after 20 years. ... NickMom, a new prime-time block of programs aimed at mothers, will air on Nick Jr., 10 p.m.-midnight weeknights, beginning Monday.
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Glee," Cool TV and TV directors. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Last Resort," "The Neighbors" and locally produced GAC reality show "Farm Kings." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about the Emmys, "Partners," "Vegas" and "Awkward." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.tvradio
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.