Claire Danes Claire Danes

Let's hope you didn't have much else planned for this weekend, because there's so much excellent TV on tap it's hard to know where to begin.

Let's start with the winners' circle. You couldn't ask for better timing, or a more satisfying result, than Homeland's sweep of the top drama Emmy prizes last Sunday — exactly one week before Showtime's launch of what's shaping up to be a remarkably taut second season (Sunday, 10/9c). Expectations couldn't be higher. (If you missed any or all of the first season, with the deservedly Emmy-winning lead performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Showtime is replaying all 12 episodes in a Saturday marathon starting at noon/11c.) As the new season begins, you may once again be asking yourself: Has there ever been a scarier loose cannon than mentally unstable spy gamer Carrie Mathison (Danes)? Or a more unnerving secret saboteur than war hero-turned-congressman Nicholas Brody (Lewis)?

The suspense in Homeland goes beyond what will happen next in an international game of high-stakes cat-and-mole, set against a frighteningly timely backdrop of Middle East turmoil. From the edge of your seat, you wonder if they can possibly keep topping themselves. Based on the first two episodes, the answer is a resounding and brilliant yes. The pressure keeps building, to exquisitely squirm-inducing levels of tension, for both of these deeply conflicted protagonists. The result: a master class in powerhouse performances, as Danes brings all of Carrie's bipolar anxieties and impulses to the surface with explosive intensity as she is returned to the field before she's mentally ready. Meanwhile, Lewis keeps an impressively tight lid on Brody's inner torment, hidden from Beltway power brokers and his family, as he is reluctantly drawn back into terrorist Abu Nazir's web of violent retribution.

The pace is swift, with potentially game-changing twists introduced before we may be ready for them. If the writers (who must have nerves of steel) are willing to burn through story this quickly, all we can do is hang on and try not to get whiplash as we await the fallout. With terrific support from Mandy Patinkin — holla! — as Carrie's wary handler and Morena Baccarin as Brody's worried wife, Homeland joins a revitalized Dexter as cable's most thrilling combo of white-knuckle intrigue.

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