If last season (and the last parts of the season before) left you wanting to run away from Showtime's Homeland, the good news is that it's safe to come back. The show may never again achieve the intensely suspenseful and emotional heights of year one, with its psychosexual tango between Carrie and the enigmatic war hero/possible terrorist tool Brody, and I'm still not convinced that basket-case analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) should be posted anywhere hotter than Antarctica. But this Emmy-winning international spy thriller suddenly feels much more topical and urgent again in its fourth season, where the only remaining remnant of the Brody storyline is the infant daughter — a ginger baby, naturally (hauntingly Damian Lewis in aspect) — whom Carrie bore after witnessing the father's cruel fate.
Much of the success of this Homeland reboot, beginning with a taut two-hour opener (Sunday, 9/8c), has to do with location. Carrie is first seen running ops as station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she has earned a rather proud reputation as "drone queen," ordering successful air strikes from her remote command post — we see, but don't hear or feel, the bombings — working on information gained by her counterpart (Corey Stoll) in Islamabad, Pakistan. As grim as her surroundings look in this "hardship post," Carrie appears to be having the time of her life — anything to keep her a world removed from the domestic and maternal duties back home that would be like prison to her. (Carrie is unquestionably the worst TV mother since The Killing's Sarah Linden, a suspicion confirmed by a moment in the second hour when Carrie realizes just what a danger she'd be to Baby Franny if she stuck around.)
The watch-cry this season is "accountability," a stark political reckoning when Carrie's latest mission, though successful in removing a high-profile terrorist target, goes horribly awry. The fearsome amount of "collateral damage" — humanized in the compelling subplot of a young Muslim med-student survivor (Suraj Sharma) — affects U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and military relations with their Middle East cohorts, turning this hot spot into a deadly powder keg. And while the fallout creates a moral dilemma for Carrie's agency confidante, the tormented Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), it provides a professional opportunity for her former boss Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who's now working for a private security contractor and who has lost none of his authority-defying outspokenness.
As Carrie ruthlessly, recklessly pursues answers to how they got into this mess, at peace only when she's at war, Homeland regains much of its dramatic power by taking us far from home and making us wonder that if someone like Carrie is our best hope, should we just abandon hope?
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GOOD SPORTS: You can take the superstar out of the 'hood, but ... you know the rest. The merrily pungent six-episode Starz comedy series, Survivor's Remorse(Saturday, 9/8c), is bracingly timely in its focus on the flip side of instant fame and fortune in a pro-sports media fishbowl. Executive-produced by LeBron James and created by Mike O'Malley (Shameless, Glee), this disarming winner has you instantly rooting for basketball prodigy Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), who moves his entire entourage of a rambunctious family on up to an Atlanta penthouse, fending off extortionists from his hard-knocks past while cousin-manager Jessie (RonReaco Lee) works overtime to "protect the brand."
Not so easy when the rest of the family is such a handful, including an opportunistic uncle (Mike Epps), a brash sister with an eye for the ladies (Erica Ash) and an outspoken mother (the delicious Tichina Arnold), who in one prescient storyline proudly brags to a red-carpet reporter about how she used to whip her kid — with a piece of Hot Wheels track! — back before she got "a whiff of that Oprah life." Whoa. Can this family survive success? I surely hope so.
YADA YA-DON'T: Think it's easy to clone Seinfeld? Fox's dreadful, embarrassing misfire Mulaney (Sunday, 9:30/8:30c) proves otherwise. Which is really a shame, because title star John Mulaney (Saturday Night Live) has an appealingly askew, drolly funny style as a stand-up comedian, his spiky material belying his fresh-scrubbed, boyish appearance. Too bad this shockingly, disturbingly inept series fails to capitalize on his offbeat persona while accentuating his cringe-inducing awkwardness as an actor. His confidence in the stand-up bits, which frame each episode, vanishes completely when the show actually starts. It's as if he's learning a new language on the soundstage — or maybe it's just an allergic reaction to the substandard writing.
Scenes don't so much flow as randomly collide in a stale format that could give a viewer flop sweat, as Mulaney gawkishly stands, expressionless and vague, center stage in an ensemble comedy for which it's impossible to curb one's disdain. On the home front, SNL's Nasim Pedrad is Jane (rhymes with Elaine), his platonic, annoyingly self-obsessed and braying roomie. They share a New York apartment with a fellow in-name-only comic, Motif (Seaton Smith), and across the hall is Oscar, a fey hippie Kramer, played with broad and inexplicably swishy clumsiness by a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here Elliott Gould. Every so often a Newman-esque bearded creep of a drug dealer, Andre (Zack Pearlman), shows up at the door for everyone to abuse. So far so Seinfeld — and calling yourself "a Seinfeld rip-off" as a meta in-joke doesn't make it any less the truth.
Mulaney does diverge from its prototype by giving its protagonist an awful showbiz job, as joke writer for daytime game-show ham Lou Cannon (Martin Short, coasting). If this is meant to evoke the good old days of Rob Petrie toiling for Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show, it backfires. This is less a case of "Oh, Rob" as "Oh no, John — please don't quit your night job." Let's hope John Mulaney is back on the stand-up circuit soon. Maybe this experience will give him some new material. Can't imagine why else it exists.