By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After Claire Danes claimed her second straight Emmy for best actress in a drama on Sunday night, she mused that her role as the brilliant bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison in "Homeland" was a "good gig" that she hopes "lasts a while."
The third season of "Homeland," however, has its challenges after a second season that underwhelmed critics. Notwithstanding Danes' repeat win, Sunday served up a reminder of the pressure on the Showtime counterterrorism thriller to regain its footing.
After winning six Emmys last year for its freshman season including the trifecta of top awards - best drama series, and best actor and actress in a drama - "Homeland" walked away this year with just two trophies out of 11 nominations.
The first season of "Homeland," adapted from an Israeli series, captured viewers with its complex characters and plots that resonated with the real terrorism fears among the U.S. public. Even U.S. President Barack Obama declared himself to be a fan.
But the second season saw a backlash against what many critics viewed as improbable plot twists around Carrie and Brody, the rescued POW turned al Qaeda agent played by British actor Damian Lewis.
As season three kicks off next Sunday, it doesn't help that many TV eyes will be fixed that day on the final episode of "Breaking Bad," the gritty AMC show that snatched the best drama Emmy and the attention from "Homeland."
Last year's season finale managed to claw back some of the credibility that was gradually lost over the 12 episodes of season two. The show ended with the bombing of CIA headquarters that killed 200 and Brody, now a congressman and double-agent for the CIA, forced to run as fingers point at him, ripping apart his plans with Carrie to begin a life together.
Season three starts with an erratic Carrie off her medication but with a zeal to get to the bottom of the bombing with her boss and confidant, acting CIA Director Saul Berenson played by Mandy Patinkin. Both are struggling in the aftermath.
The creators behind "Homeland" seem to be aware of the pressure to turn the show around, but they defend their storytelling instincts and their ratings.
"I obviously wish the backlash had never happened," co-creator Alex Gansa told the summer meeting of the Television Critics Association. "But it didn't really influence ... the way we rolled out season two or season three. The show built an audience all through season two."
He and co-creator Howard Gordon, who worked together on the counterterrorism precursor "24," said that in writing the third season, they were influenced by the congressional investigation into the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Season three will explore the cost that being an intelligence officer exacts on people and the institution of the CIA.
"That is an agency that couldn't even protect itself," Gansa said. "How should it be expected to protect the country?"
WHERE'S BRODY, WHO'S BRODY?
But the storyline that may keep viewers coming back in season three is the fate of the complex character that is Brody. Lewis doesn't even appear in the first two episodes and it is unclear how he will emerge back into the world.
"TV audiences are so literate now," Lewis told the television critics' meeting. "They're so good at guessing plot and what's going to happen next and all the different permutations. But it's the timing of (the) story which is the one thing that these guys (the show's writers) have left to them, in their power."
At Sunday's Emmys, Danes said she felt fortunate to have such a challenging role, telling reporters backstage: "I hope it lasts a while because it remains so compelling to me, personally and creatively."
According to Showtime, the premium cable channel owned by CBS Corp that won its first best drama Emmy with "Homeland," the show ended its second season with its highest ratings ever, over 7-1/2 million viewers.
After viewing the first episodes, critics seem willing to give "Homeland" the benefit of the doubt.
"These latest episodes represent a tentative first step toward seeing whether the show can re-ascend to those heights or, conversely, plummet into an abyss of implausibility," wrote Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry. "Like so much else pertaining to 'Homeland,' at this point, it could go either way."
The show's creators can take heart in the fact that the show is still in the zeitgeist. The animated comedy "The Simpsons" will do its send-up of "Homeland" in the opening episode of its 25th season - also airing, by coincidence, next Sunday.
"The fact that Homer worked at a nuclear plant lent itself to him being somebody that could be turned by nefarious forces to try to do something terrible," said "Simpsons" Executive Producer Al Jean.
"And the fact that you just add an 'R' to 'Homeland' and you get 'Homerland' really made it good."
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Eric Beech)