Last year, early in the first season of 'Homeland,' we met a CIA "asset" – an American girl with a two-year contract to serve in the harem of a Saudi prince. Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent played by Claire Danes, gives the girl a high-tech gadget, which she uses to rapidly download data from the prince's BlackBerry. The plot, like so much of 'Homeland,' skillfully blends spy-fantasy drama with a realistic depiction of the daily grind of intelligence work. It's one reason the show has garnered not just nine Emmy nominations, but fans in multiple American national-security agencies. But what about that data-stealing gadget? "People love it on TV," says consulting producer Henry Bromell, "but the CIA doesn't have any of this high-tech stuff." Perhaps more important, it does recruit Western girls who are working in harems. "That came from a CIA source," Bromell says, "and my first reaction was that it was pulp fiction. But she said, 'Think about it. These girls are paid a shitload of money. They don't necessarily feel good about it or like the guys – that's a very good possible recruit.'"
In the central plot of 'Homeland''s first season, Carrie suspects that an American soldier (Damian Lewis), who has been a POW for eight years, isn't a hero at all but a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda. She ruins her professional relationships and her mental health in pursuit of the obsession. "These people work ceaselessly," Bromell says of CIA employees. "They know even more than we do about how porous we are, so they sleep even less well than the rest of us. I know a bunch of guys who were tasked with trying to figure out Osama bin Laden before 9/11. They weren't sure what it was going to be, but they went to bed every night thinking, 'Is tomorrow the day?' And one day it was."
Howard Gordon, 'Homeland''s executive producer, is quick to point out that the show doesn't strive to be anything other than fiction, but, he says, "it's a fiction that should feel real." To help with that verisimilitude, the CIA cooperates with the show, providing a liaison to answer questions about CIA culture and practices – though she won't divulge details of specific operations (or talk to journalists). Often, the writers will invent a story element and run it by the CIA, to ensure it isn't laughable to those in the know.
The 'Homeland' staff is steeped in intelligence work. Bromell is the son of a CIA agent and spent his childhood in foreign capitals such as Baghdad and Tehran. Co-executive producer Alex Cary is a former British special-forces soldier. Co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa learned about counterterrorism by working on the hit thriller '24,' Gordon as showrunner.
But despite the shared personnel and the subject matter, the shows are quite different: The war Carrie Mathison fights lacks the moral certainty of the war Jack Bauer fought in real time on '24.' "'Homeland' is informed by a kind of empathy," says Gordon, "not moral relativism, but trying to animate both sides of the so-called war on terror with a little more nuance and uncertainty."
What makes the show feel real to CIA employees is not just how it captures the personality types of spies, but how it weaves in elements of the Langley culture. Bromell wrote an episode where agency employees have to submit to polygraphs to determine whether one of them slipped a razor blade to a detainee. He knew about that because his father got polygraphed regularly.
Substantial portions of the first two episodes of the second season (on Showtime) were filmed in Israel, standing in for Beirut. Viewers will discover that Carrie once recruited a Lebanese woman she found at the American consulate watching the free movies they play every Sunday. According to Bromell's father, those audiences are fertile ground because anyone who shows up has some affinity for American culture.
Earlier this year, President Obama explained his love for 'Homeland' to 'Rolling Stone': "Obviously, there's a lot of overdramatization of how our national security apparatus works...but it's a terrific psychological study." The 'Homeland' staff have heard that Bill Clinton brags about being the one who turned Obama on to the show. Bromell says, "Not only does he have Obama watching it, but the Secretary of State – his wife – the Secretary of Defense, the head of the CIA, they all watch it and talk about it Monday mornings. That's bonkers."