Gripping drama: in its third season, <i>Homeland</i> can still surprise.

Gripping drama: in its third season, Homeland can still surprise.

It has become fashionable to knock Homeland. The third season of the espionage thriller has attracted howls of protest: accusations that it's lost the plot, jumped the shark, turned into soap opera or a tepid variation on 24. But has it? The spy drama might no longer have the novelty and the shock value of its first explosive season, but that's to be expected. And this season still has a lot going for it.

For those unfamiliar with the tangled web that is the world of Homeland, the story so far essentially revolves around Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a brilliant but unstable CIA agent, and her fraught relationship with Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a former marine, prisoner of war, celebrated war hero, disgraced congressman and Muslim.

They're in love, he's married, she's pregnant, possibly with his baby, and she's bipolar. He's been on the run with a $10 million bounty on his head, accused of bombing CIA headquarters and killing hundreds. She believes he's been framed for that and is intent on proving his innocence. For much of this season, he's been captive in the Tower of David, a high-rise hell in Caracas.

There's also a lot of other stuff going on: conspiracies, covert schemes, tensions within the CIA, pressure on Brody's family, and shadowy forces at work.

The comparisons with 24 are not entirely unfounded and several of Homeland's producers previously worked on that series. Like 24's Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), Carrie is perpetually in pursuit of some elusive terrorist mastermind who has dastardly plans to inflict catastrophic harm on the US. When one of these monsters falls, another quickly rises to replace him, so there's a constant sense of urgency, of a chase in progress, and of the existence of a threat that just won't go away.

For someone who watched every episode of the eight seasons of 24 (that's me) and stayed hooked on the addictive, sometimes ludicrous and often morally dubious adventures of special agent Bauer, the comparisons between Homeland and 24 are not as damning as they're clearly intended to be.

There are things 24 did well and one of them was creating a compelling momentum: it would write its characters into seemingly impossible situations, and then manage to get them out, while simultaneously devising new plot threads to keep the action moving. It kept twisting and turning, sprinting along so fast that viewers were encouraged to suspend any nagging sense of disbelief about Bauer's strategies, prowess and indestructibility.

Through this season of Homeland, some have questioned the decisions made to keep the plot ticking: taking Carrie off her meds and making her worryingly unstable; and pregnant; engaging her and acting CIA director Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) in a secret plan to get their man, even keeping their colleagues (and us) in the dark; suggesting Saul's got more going on than he's letting on.

But these developments have served their purpose in keeping the plot pumping and consistent in line with the issues of trust, loyalty, deception and betrayal that have been at the core of the risk-taking show all along.

The main problem for the producers this season has been structural: Carrie and Brody, the beating hearts of the show, have been separated for much of it, robbing the drama of its most intriguing relationship and its emotional anchor. So the writers have looked elsewhere to generate emotion, most profitably with a storyline involving Brody's teenage daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), which has examined the impact of his behaviour on his family.

They've also paralleled Carrie's and Brody's plights, from incarceration to injury and gruelling physical ordeals. And they've done some intriguing shape-shifting with Saul, who slides between paternal authority figure and ruthless spymaster.

The third episode, which introduced the Tower of David, a decrepit monument to failed capitalism, was a standout, a darkly surreal trip into otherworldly chaos.

Responding to criticisms that the show had lost its mojo and was resorting to cheap tricks, executive producer Alex Gansa explained recently that the producers have seen the season in three distinct, four-episode chapters, and promised everything will make satisfying sense in the end.

With three episodes to go, it's now into the final chapter. Even if, at times, it has strained credibility, Homeland is still serpentine and suspenseful. It still moves fast and retains a capacity to surprise. They're achievements that shouldn't be dismissed lightly.