On Friday, Sept. 30, a targeted CIA drone attack in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two American citizens and Al Qaeda operatives. That same weekend Showtime premiered Homeland, a drama series in which a CIA analyst pursues an American POW who she believes has been “turned” Al Qaeda agent during his 8-year captivity in Iraq. Homeland is a licensed adaptation of the Israeli hit drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which begins its second season next month under a cloud of controversy and accusations of opportunism, as Israel’s most famous POW, Gilad Shalit, returned home in a prisoner swap with Hamas only weeks ago.
Television is repurposing and retelling as much as (or more than) it is storytelling. Formats, this week’s theme, are the software of television in a global market –indeed, the practice of official formatting and unlicensed borrowing of television elements (structure, conventions, characters and narratives) is as old as the medium itself. And so it is often in the precise location of conversion (what stays, what’s changed, what’s tweaked, and how) that the most fascinating alchemy of television happens; it is here that the specifics of context and projections about audience engagement coalesce to assert differences.
In Homeland, the adaptation is pretty loose (much more so than the near line-by-line translation of another Israeli-sourced cable show, In Treatment). The two shows’ linked coexistence is charged with meaning about narrative mobility among distinct political realities. Betrayal, surveillance and paranoia saturate both shows, yet Hatufim has two POWs returning after 18 years, magnifying their isolation and the man-out-of-time theme. Homeland is an espionage thriller with a central question; Hatufim explores family, community and national life and the men’s impossible reintegration, letting questions about their honesty and self presentation slowly percolate. Homeland, for all its satisfying ambiguities—Sgt. Brody’s conversion to Islam, for example, which is played with a clear aim to rouse viewers to contemplate their own response—still maintains a moral map its characters (often fail to) navigate. Hatufim is a slow-paced psychodrama where moral maps are useless and political narratives are finally incoherent.