HBO Feels Heat as Red-Hot ‘Homeland’ Returns on Showtime

"Dexter," starring Michael C. Hall, and "Homeland," starring Claire Danes, have breathed new life into Showtime (Photos: Showtime)

Once upon a time, the words “TV’s most-honored drama” would almost certainly have been applied to a series on HBO.

Now the words are used almost constantly to refer to a series on Showtime: “Homeland.”

That’s as good a way as any to begin a discussion of the face-off between the two pay-cable rivals when Showtime’s terrorist-fighting drama “Homeland” starts its second season Sunday night (Sept. 30), preceded by another high-profile Showtime series, “Dexter,” starting its seventh season.

Going up against “Dexter” at 9/8c: HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” And against “Homeland” at 10/9c: HBO’s “Treme.” Certainly, the “Homeland” vs. “Treme” face-off emerges as the more lopsided of the two confrontations.

It’s really no contest: “Homeland” just cleaned up at the Emmys — a Best Drama Emmy (the first ever for a Showtime series) and Best Actress and Best Actor Emmys for leads Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Plus, the critical acclaim it has received is nearly unanimous. “Treme” is producer David Simon’s quiet, understated drama series about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. While “Treme” has its good points, almost no one gets excited about it.

Click on the pic to watch an extended “First Look” at “Homeland,” Season 2:

That’s not the case with “Homeland,” which this season ratchets up the action and suspense. At least that’s what it seemed like to me when I watched the first two episodes on a preview DVD provided by Showtime. In the premiere, Carrie Mathison (Danes) has been out of the CIA for some time, after her firing at the end of the first season. Her emotional recovery from the rigors of her job includes therapy, meds, and gardening in her spare time (she’s now living with her parents in the house she grew up in). But it’s not long before the agency calls her back in for a special assignment that will have her transitioning overnight to the sullen, dusty, back alleys of the Middle East. Danes handles the transition with Emmy-winning skill. How does her character handle it? I’m not telling.

Meanwhile, it’s not as easy to call the race between “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire.” The HBO gangster series has much going for it — a huge cast, real-life characters from the much-mythologized organized crime pantheon of the Roaring ’20s, stunning costumes, period furnishings, great cars and, of course, sex and violence.

What does “Dexter” have? Well, it might not be as richly dressed as “Boardwalk Empire,” but it does have Michael C. Hall in the title role of the serial killer who kills other serial killers — perhaps TV’s most challenging dramatic role. And he’s great in it. Plus, I have long loved this show’s Miami setting (though much of it is filmed in southern California apparently), its Latin-flavored musical soundtrack and its colorful supporting players.

The challenge for “Dexter” is this: How do you keep its central scenario — about a serial killer who struggles to keep his secret while working in the Miami Police Department’s Homicide Bureau as a blood-spatter specialist — fresh season after season? This season, the answer to that is this: Dexter’s sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) — who also happens to be a homicide detective — has now learned her brother’s secret. How she’ll deal with him or, more to the point, help him keep his urges under control, is shaping up as the central theme in the new season.

“Dexter” begins its seventh season Sunday night at 9/8c and “Homeland” starts its second season Sunday at 10/9c — both on Showtime.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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