Why Prisoners of War is everything Homeland isn’t

Patricia Treble explains why the Israeli show is the best on TV

Have you ever sat down to watch a new TV show and then experienced a frisson, a shiver down the spine, as you recognize that it is a truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle? Then the heady knowledge that indulging in an entire season or two is possible? Soon weekend plans and promises are thrown out the window, exchanged for hour after hour on the couch. That was me in recent months watching Prisoners of War, the Israeli show that spawned Homeland. It’s simply the best series I’ve watched in the last decade, bar none.

This weekend, Super Channel is showing the two-season series in one long marathon, starting at noon on Saturday, Nov. 9 on Super Channel 2. Either stock your house with supplies and shut off all contact with the outside world, or tape it for future use (or both, in case of a phone call from Mum asking for a cookie recipe).

Prisoners of War is everything Homeland isn’t.

Homeland is a slick, expensive show featuring Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns to his family in the States after being held captive in the Middle East for eight years, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a bipolar CIA operative who believes Brody has been turned into an Islamic terrorist by his captors. While the first season was riveting, as Brody’s motives and experiences were revealed with a tantalizing slowness that drove Mathison to extremes, the second season was “hijacked,” as Prachi Gupta of Salon writes, by the increasingly implausible love affair between Brody and Mathison. The third season, currently running, is simply indecipherable and incomprehensible. When critics applaud an episode for not being as terrible as the previous one, it’s a show with problems.  

Prisoners of War, by contrast, focuses on three Israeli soldiers, captured in Lebanon 17 years before, and their families (and nation) who suddenly have to cope with strangers coming home. These are broken men, twisted and torn by years of torture and isolation. The Israeli series, made on a minuscule budget—roughly $200,000 an episode—uses a large ensemble cast to delve into the sociological and family dynamics created by the explosive situation. And instead of the CIA, there’s an Israeli military psychologist who doubts the stories spun by the returnees and seeks to find out their secrets. There are no big car chases, no big explosions. Rather, the tension is never forced, but deliberately ratcheted up episode after episode.  This is a series that can’t be watched while cooking supper. With no English spoken—there are subtitles for the Hebrew and Arabic dialogue—and set in the unfamiliar locale of the Middle East, this is a show that must be watched, otherwise nuances, glances and inflections are lost. 

And in case you wonder why I’m not talking much about plotting for season 1 and 2, there’s a good reason. It is so original, so shocking, and so riveting, that I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Season 1, which focuses on the return of the soldiers, is amazing. But season 2 is nearly perfect. There are so many layers to the plots, so many twists and turns that I watched it in one 14-hour marathon. I was satiated at the end, but creator Gideon Raff (who also worked on Homeland) wasn’t finished with his viewers. In the last 15 seconds of the final episode came a simple question that had me shouting at the screen while pleading to the TV gods that Raff does a third season.

So make plans this weekend to spend some quality time with Prisoners of War.