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Showtime On Sunday: Terror Spiced With Sex On ‘Homeland,’ Then Sex Seasoned By Terror

Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin in "Homeland." (Kent Smith/Showtime/AP)

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Time was when we’d be cursing Showtime for scheduling the story about a kind of sympathetic terrorist who kills the vice-president over the story about a kind of sympathetic meth amphetamine drug lord who’s responsible for a whole lot of death and destruction.

Now it’s no matter that the beginning of Season Two of “Homeland” as well as the debut of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime are scheduled opposite “Breaking Bad” on AMC. Just get that DVR set for Showtime — you’re not really thinking of missing the end of “Breaking Bad” in real time — and Bob’s your uncle.

At any rate, don’t fret too much over Damian Lewis’s Brody for a while as he went AWOL and doesn’t appear in the first couple of episodes this year. The focus is mostly on Claire Danes’s Carrie and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul — a good thing — as well as on Morgan Saylor’s Dana.

Who? Brody’s daughter, if you remember, who’s having all kinds of problems coming to terms with Dad wanting to blow up half the Western world. Or at least he did till the end of the second season as he began losing his religion.

We started losing our religion, too, in Season Two as Danes’s bug-eyed act became the stuff of satire — good for an Emmy, though — and she wasn’t the only thing over the top about the show. The plot became more “24” and less le Carre.

“Homeland” seems to have its feet more on the ground starting out Season Three. Carrie is in trouble with the government as those pesky Congressional types want to know why she, you know, slept with a terrorist. And while Saul remains tortured about her, he’s not about to do much to help her.

Given that the war against terror is much hotter than the Cold War, the line between drama and melodrama is thin when it comes to “Homeland.” There were 219 Americans killed at the end of last season as the CIA was attacked — not such a preposterous situation, alas. The producers also work in allusions to Edward Snowden, the killing of Osama bin Laden, Congressional gridlock, and other events of our confused times.

For all that, the characters are what makes “Homeland” tick and without Brody around, Saul and Carrie more than hold their own in the first couple of episodes. Saul, who now runs the CIA, is the series most le Carre-worthy character — conflicted, sad, but decisive and strong. Danes, and the writers, are now fully in control of Carrie’s mental problems. Her breakdowns seem more earned this year.

If ‘Homeland’ isn’t quite naked enough for you, Showtime follows it with ‘Masters of Sex,’ about researchers Masters and Johnson

It looks as if F. Murray Abraham’s Dar Adal has come in from the cold and will be a bigger part of the season. One of the best new actors in the series is playwright Tracy Letts as the chairman of the committee investigating the attack. At the same time, he’s pretty much a stick figure anti-government caricature.

And while Brody isn’t around yet, his daughter is. Too much. Saylor’s a good actor, but Dana’s whininess, and even her new-found sexiness, is a bore. Not so, Carrie’s sex scenes — always provocative, and always feeding into the storyline.

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen as Johnson and Masters in "Masters of Sex." (Michael Desmond/Showtime/AP)

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen as Johnson and Masters in “Masters of Sex.” (Michael Desmond/Showtime/AP)

And if Danes and company aren’t quite naked enough for you, Showtime follows “Homeland” with “Masters of Sex.” This series is about Masters and Johnson and their clinical explorations into sexuality beginning in the mid-‘50s. I had high hopes for it given the cast — Michael Sheen of the Tony Blair movies as William Masters and Lizzy Caplan of “True Blood” as Virginia Masters.

Throw in Showtime’s, er, celebration of the human body and “Masters of Sex” should be hot. But it’s a little like HBO’s “Beyond the Candelabra” — it can’t quite find the tone between being respectful of the subject matter (which it is),having fun with it, and finding something cogent to say about it.

It doesn’t help that the usually admirable Sheen plays Masters as a cold fish, a Doc Martin without any of the charm. At least in the first two episodes, where the point seems to be how little everyone, Masters included, knew about sex and human relationships in the ‘50s. Terrors of pleasure, to steal a phrase from Spalding Gray. But that note becomes tiresome fairly quickly. Caplan’s Johnson is more compelling, but the show itself is not.

It may be that “Masters of Sex” will loosen up, but with all the competition for our eyeballs, first impressions are crucial.

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