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Fall TV's Returning Series: A Cause To Rejoice

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Right now, as we near the end of the 2012 fall TV premiere week, there's a tendency for a sense of weariness to set in. So many of the new TV series are so bad this year, and not one of them is outstanding. It tends to get a little depressing.

But then you think about the rich bounty of returning series, and how good television drama has gotten lately, and there's cause to rejoice all over again.

AMC's Mad Men and FX's Justified, which are on hiatus, had wonderful years. CBS's The Good Wife is just about to start up again, with another solid season, and new episodes of AMC's The Walking Dead are just around the corner. AMC's Breaking Bad just served up a stunner of a midseason finale to keep us spinning for a while — and now, this Sunday, we get the returns of Homeland and Dexter on Showtime. What a golden age this is — and how strange it is that three of these shows — Breaking Bad, Dexter and Homeland -- all are playing variations on the same overall theme.

The theme goes all the way back to The Fugitive in the 1960s — our hero is pursued, persistently and for years, by an investigator who keeps getting closer and closer. In The Fugitive, David Janssen's Richard Kimble was innocent. The modern wrinkle, in today's dramas, is that the people being pursued are guilty. On Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston's Walter White really is a murderous meth dealer. On Dexter, Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan really is a serial killer, specializing in murdering other serial killers. And on Homeland, Damien Lewis' Nicholas Brody really is what CIA agent Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, suspects he is — a sleeper agent working for a Middle Eastern terrorist.

For each of the investigators in these shows, the hunt is as personal as it gets. On Breaking Bad, Walter White has been tracked for years by his own brother-in-law, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who just discovered the clue that identifies Walter as the bad guy he's been hunting. And on Dexter, the title character was caught in the act, at the end of last season, by a police lieutenant — his own sister, Debra, played by Jennifer Carpenter. She watched Dexter plunge a sword into the bound-in-plastic body of the so-called Doomsday Killer — and this season begins exactly where the last one left off.

I'd like to report that after all this time, the way Debra reacts and how Dexter responds are dramatically satisfying — but they're not. I've seen the first three episodes of this new seventh season, and the program, this year, doesn't seem reinvigorated or redefined. It seems, for now at least, a little lost.

Homeland is exactly the opposite. Here's a show that managed to serve up one surprise after another last season. It also presented two leading performances that were so instantly and intensely involving — written and acted with equal brilliance — that your loyalties, as a viewer, were completely torn. You eventually knew Carrie was right, and rooted for her to stop Brody's terrorist plot — but you empathized with Brody, too. Somehow, the first season ended with both of them still standing, but barely.

For Season 2, we pick up the action six months later. Carrie, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with shock therapy, was summarily dismissed by the CIA, and she's been leading a quiet life teaching English to foreign students and living with her father and sister. Brody's fate, I'll leave for viewers to discover. One night, Carrie gets a phone call from her old CIA boss, Saul, out of the blue, asking for her help. You can tell, just from Carrie's tone, that the call upsets her as much as it surprises her.

Saul's phone call gets Carrie back into the thick of things, which is where we need her if Homeland is going to deliver another great year. And based on the first two episodes, it is. The new season of Homeland opens with an attack on an American embassy and seems so current, it's almost like peeking into the future. Writer-producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon have given us the most topical and meaningful drama on television and populated it with some of the medium's very best actors. Dexter may have strayed off course, but Homeland, like Breaking Bad, knows exactly what it's doing.

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