NEW YORK -- It could be, no TV drama has ever given viewers such a damaged pair of protagonists as Brody and Carrie on "Homeland."
Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan who returned home a national hero -- and, covertly, a terrorist turncoat (having been turned by al-Qaida during his 8-year imprisonment).
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"Homeland"Second season premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, on Showtime
Carrie Mathison was a CIA agent whose obsessive inability to prove Brody's betrayal, coupled with her bipolar disorder, led to her dismissal from the agency and a mental breakdown.
During this Showtime series' gripping first season, Carrie and Brody played a cat-and-mouse game of global intrigue, swapping roles as one, then the other, seemed to gain the upper hand. Along the way, they had a brief, tumultuous love affair.
At 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, "Homeland" begins its second season, boasting a haul of Emmys that includes the best drama award and trophies for best actress and actor for stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.
Six months after last season's action, Brody is a newly elected U.S. congressman and a prospective vice presidential candidate still in thrall to al-Qaida. Carrie now works as a teacher and continues her recovery, still reeling from her painful conclusion that Brody was innocent all along.
"The writers have carried off this trick -- haven't they? -- of creating two engaging anti-heroes," says Lewis during a recent interview.
Speaking as if an audience member, he sums up the show's shrewd symmetry: "Carrie Mathison can save us, and we WANT her to save us. But her illness and her ambition at times creates a self-absorbed monster who will stop at nothing just to achieve her goals.
"Brody, on the other hand, is barely defensible because of his endless lying and the fact that he represents such danger. But there's sympathy for him, because he's a victim as well."
Sympathy! For the man who, only at the last second -- stunned by a plaintive telephone call from his daughter -- scrapped his plot to assassinate a room full of government bigwigs with his suicide vest bomb. Instead, he returned home to his loving wife and two children, still committed to the cause and beyond redemption, and with no one the wiser.
"He's developed sociopathic tendencies and an ability to compartmentalize his life: He can be one person in one situation, another person in another situation," says Lewis, looking pleased. "For an actor, that kind of ambiguity and complexity is tremendous fun."
Before "Homeland," the London-born Lewis, 41, was known for his role as an American war hero in the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" as well as for the remake of "The Forsyte Saga" and the NBC whodunit "Life."
Clad casually this day in knit shirt, jeans and running shoes, Lewis is in New York on a brief break from shooting "Homeland" in North Carolina. He is joined by his wife, actress Helen McCrory, with whom he has a young son and daughter.
Lewis in person is charming, with a gift for mimicry (during the interview, he does a spot-on impersonation of Michael Caine, as well as of his own makeup artist in a rant about how Brody, the liar, is the sort of guy no girl would ever want to date) and possessing a certain prep-school polish (the word "whilst" rolls off his tongue).
And, of course, he is leading-man handsome, with ginger-red hair and penetrating blue eyes he puts to good use as Brody. But beyond his status as a heartthrob, Lewis is rightly hailed for the precision of his acting as, on "Homeland," he juggles Brody's many personalities and moods within a narrowly defined emotional range.
Lewis insists he was surprised to land an Emmy Award for his work.
"There were more reasons not to win than there were for me to win," he says, among them popular rivals in the category such as oft-awarded Bryan Cranston and perennially jilted Jon Hamm. "I'm over the moon."
"I was so thrilled to see him win," said "Homeland" executive producer Alex Gansa from Los Angeles the day after Emmys were bestowed. "Claire's performance gets to be wonderfully operatic, but Damian has to exist in those small margins at the edge of his behavior, and he's so restrained."
That wasn't the case in Lewis' early acting career, when most of what he did was theater.
"I felt then that I might never be a screen actor, because I was big and expressive onstage," says Lewis. "But I made a conscious decision to shrink my performance, make it less expansive, and to internalize everything as deep inside as I possibly could."
That concentrated power has paid off big-time on "Homeland," helping make Brody seem indispensable when, initially, he was living on borrowed time.
The producers at first had seen Brody as a secondary figure who might not last past Season 1.
"But as we fleshed out the middle part of the season, we began to see the magic when Claire and Damian were on-screen together," said Gansa. "It was if the word 'Chemistry' was flashing on the screen. So what we had thought was a series about a CIA officer chasing terrorists was something quite different: It was a dance between these two characters.
"I truly believe it's this dance, this doomed love affair between Brody and Carrie, that has captured people's interest," Gansa said.
"They are hooked into each other," Lewis agrees. "The damage he can do to Carrie is on a personal, emotional level. So even if Brody no longer is a central threat to homeland security, he can possibly survive in the series just being terribly destructive to Carrie -- and to himself."
Or maybe not.
"Fundamentally," Lewis goes on, "this is a CIA show that deals with potential threats to American security. So Brody might be only the first of several different threats. But none of us know, and I include Alex and (executive producer) Howard (Gordon)."
Lewis is right about that.
"The possibility of Brody's demise really does exist," said Gansa, even as he pleads ignorant to when it might be. "Whether it happens this season or next season, or the season after, it will happen when the Brody-Carrie story stops feeling compelling. And, by the way, that day will be a very mournful one around here, because the show will fundamentally change at that point."
The notion that Brody might go: Chalk it up for "Homeland" fans as yet another of the many threats resonating from the show. More than ever as the second season starts, it's a splendid drama capturing a jittery modern age. It's maybe the most nervous-making series on the air.