A liberating force

The original Homeland has less gloss, more grit, Melinda Houston writes.

Prisoners of War

Saturday, 8.30pm, SBS One

Prisoners of War is fascinating in its own right, but also as the recognisable, yet distinctive, progenitor to Homeland. An Israeli drama that first screened in 2010, it has the same basic premise: two prisoners of war, given up for dead, are unexpectedly released and return home profoundly changed men to a profoundly changed world. But this has very much its own feel and focus. It reads much more like one of those Scandinavian dramas we've come to know and love. The look is a little grainy and drained of colour. The actors are handsome but less airbrushed than their American cousins, more textured and rough around the edges. The pace is slower and quieter, although no less compelling. And although there's nothing glossy about this, it's stylishly shot and beautifully edited. The opening scene (and the one in which the prisoners and their families are reunited) is extraordinarily powerful, and the whole enterprise is both disorienting and hypnotic. One major difference is that while one assumes the plot will unfold in a similar manner, this has a great deal more emphasis on character and relationships, and that gives Prisoners of War a different kind of muscle. The key characters are beautifully drawn and the set-up is a little different and a little more complex. Here, the Brody character is Uri, a shy young man who was about to be married when he was captured. He returns 17 years later to discover his fiancee has married his brother. Nimrod, Uri's co-captive, is much more present here; clearly the one who held it all together during the men's ordeal, he comes home to a devoted wife but also a surly 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son he's never met. We also meet the sister of the third captive, who failed to make it out alive. In the US version, we discover early on that Brody killed him. His fate here remains more obscure but the pain of her loss while the rest of the world is celebrating the return of the heroes is particularly poignant. There are hints already about Uri's ''conversion'' and, admittedly, having watched two seasons of Homeland, the suspense of that plot element is pretty thoroughly leached. But in its place is an absolutely riveting psychological drama that promises to be every bit as compelling as the shinier US version.


Monday, 5.50pm, Showcase

This is a funny time for one of the shows of the week (following straight on from a new season of Laura Dern's Enlightened, at the equally odd time of 5.15pm). With a half-hour program, a start at the quarter-hour seems guaranteed to make sure most people miss half the show, but we're doing our bit to alert you. And certainly the first episode of season two of Girls deserves your attention for every second, even if sometimes I can hardly bear to watch, so brutally does this mordant comedy lay bare the foibles (and worse) of my own 20s. I'm not saying which bits (of this, or my 20s) - let's preserve a little dignity here - suffice to say that while technology and fashions may have changed, human nature has not, and it's those insights - through Lena Dunham's clever-stupid Hannah, not-as-perfect-as-she-seems Marnie and chatterbox Shoshanna - as much as any funny lines and set-ups that make this so rewarding. I also love the way the rhythms of this replicate the pace of life in your 20s. Most sitcoms (and dramas, especially soaps) are packed with incident, but here it feels more believable. It's a time of life when people move in and out of jobs, relationships, share houses and life philosophies at a startling pace, and Dunham captures that chaos. Tonight, among other things, Hannah celebrates having a new housemate (The New Normal's Andrew Rannells) by throwing a house-warming party while Marnie gets a visit from her mother (Rita Wilson, note-perfect), and some very bad news.

American Idol ½

Thursday, Friday, 7.30pm, Channel Ten

The almost-live screening of this venerable talent show is an interesting move by Channel Ten. Certainly in the US, it is still one of the absolute blockbusters. It's hard to say why it (and Survivor, and Amazing Race) have continued to go from strength to strength in the US while the franchises withered here. And it's impossible to say with what kind of enthusiasm local audiences will greet American Idol's return. Keith Urban on the judging panel will help pique the interest of some. Along with Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, we can expect some heavy-duty talent among the guests over the course of the season. And what we are guaranteed is some extraordinary vocal talent, something American Idol has reliably delivered now for more than a decade. It really is the chance to see a potential new star born.


World Without End ½

Sunday, 8.55pm, Soho

The follow-up to Pillars of the Earth, based on another Ken Follett novel (although this time departing significantly from the original). We're back in Kingsbridge, in the 1300s, and despite the establishment of the cathedral, God still doesn't seem all that pleased with his people. The Black Death is ravaging Europe, while England and France are embroiled in the Hundred-Year War. Once again, another big ensemble cast (including Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson, Peter Firth and Tom Weston-Jones) bring the sprawling tale to life, and while nothing here tests your attention or your intellect, it's still a rollicking yarn.