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Why TV shows are this year’s mixtapes

Claire Danes accepts award for outstanding lead actress dramseries for 'Homeland' this year's Emmy Awards. | AP

Claire Danes accepts the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for "Homeland" at this year's Emmy Awards. | AP

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Updated: October 1, 2012 8:59PM

Episodic TV series are the hipster bands of the 2010s.

Back in the day when people still purchased music in physical packages and most of the up-and-coming acts could actually play instruments, there was a certain thrill in being among the first to discover a group. Early devotees would drag their friends to a club to see them live, or make a mix tape or get a copy of a CD, thrust it at their significant other and say, “This will change your life.”

Now it’s the show on HBO or Showtime or Starz or AMC that inspires nearly irrational passion from the First Fans who make it their life’s mission to spread the word. You can’t go into the break room at work or meet your friends for a drink or engage in a social media conversation without someone asking when you’re going to get into “The Walking Dead” (or “Girls” or “Dexter” or “Sons of Anarchy” or any of a dozen other shows with rabid followings).

But your marathon must start with Episode One, Season One. If that means you’ll be devoting most of your free time over the next week curled up with the iPad and all 54 episodes of “Breaking Bad” to date, so be it.

For as long as we’ve had TV we’ve had addictive shows — but never more so than since the advent of the DVR, not to mention the option of watching programs on your computer. (I’ve seen every episode of “Modern Family,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” — but never during their regular time slots.) If one can avoid spoilers, there’s something immensely satisfying about indulging in a mini-marathon instead of waiting an entire week for the next installment of “Game of Thrones.”

Which is how I came to experience “Homeland.” Through all the great reviews and terrific buzz of the first season, up to the Emmy triumphs for Claire Danes and Damian Lewis (as well as Best Drama Series and Best Writing), I had yet to see more than a snippet of the show, until last week, when I downloaded Season One and settled in for what I’d been led to believe was perhaps the best show on TV.

In the immortal words of Rick in “Casablanca,” I was misinformed.

A well-crafted soap opera

Not that I think “Homeland” is a subpar series, or The Most Overrated Show Ever (a tag that eventually gets assigned to nearly every show to debut to near-universal acclaim.) I found it to be a solid, well-crafted soap opera — but not the deeply engrossing, stunningly effective, earth-shattering drama many hold it to be.


There’s no denying the talent of the cast, the strength of the writing, the impressive photography. This is a major league piece of work.

My misgivings start with the casting. Going back to “My So-Called Life,” Claire Danes has always been an acquired taste. Rarely has an actress so often resorted to going wide-eyed and then even wider-eyed to convey her emotions. Sometimes it’s heartbreakingly effective; just as often, it’s as distracting as Kristen Stewart biting her lip every 30 seconds or Jennifer Aniston constantly playing with her hair.

Damian Lewis, the 1,475th actor from across the pond to play an American in the last decade, is a fine actor. His work as the multi-layered Brody is solid, but I don’t see it ranking among the most memorable portrayals in TV history, a la Bryan Cranston’s work in “Breaking Bad.” As for Mandy “Holla!” Patinkin, he’s an enormously gifted performer, but far too often, you’re aware he’s ACTING.

The storyline in Season One was often fascinating in its twists and turns, but on more than a few occasions, episodes hinged on overly familiar plot developments and stock characters. An ongoing lie explodes when a character makes a stupid slip in an offhand conversation. (“How do you know what kind of tea I drink?”) The hooker with a heart of gold that’s destined to die a violent death. A character thought to be dead is…ALIVE! And Carrie and Brody are both so clearly disturbed and unbalanced (for very different reasons), the people in their lives sometimes have to act like idiots just so one or both of them isn’t permanently removed from society.

I know: one can pick apart the story arcs of everything from a comic book movie to Shakespeare. It’s all about the execution of these elements. To that end, “Homeland” is consistently strong — but I can’t equate my viewing experience with the rapture of watching “The Sopranos,” “Lost,” “Breaking Bad” and a dozen other shows.

To me it’s a Top 20 hit. I don’t see it ever becoming No. 1, with or without a bullet.

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