Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage

Sunday was the night Showtime officially entered the Emmy big leagues thanks to its newest signature drama series, the pulse-pounding first-year Homeland. It won the pay-cabler its first Emmys in three different major categories: for top drama series as well as lead actor (Damian Lewis) and actress (Claire Danes). Only Danes’ win was considered a shoo-in. The other two were significant upsets, having broken lengthy winning streaks. The only omen that Homeland could be in for such a big night was its victory back in January for best drama series at the Golden Globes. But rarely is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association a reliable arbiter of future success with the TV Academy.

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Few pundits anticipated this kind of dominance for Homeland. But Danes noted backstage that the cast, crew and producers took no special pleasure in having prevented Mad Men from earning what would have been a record fifth consecutive outstanding drama series Emmy. “We didn’t make our show just to undermine Mad Men,” she said. “We’re delighted and thrilled and a little startled by this. No one was expecting to be recognized in this way right off the bat.” Danes paused before adding, “But it feels pretty nice.” Co-creator and executive producer Howard Gordon — coming off a hugely successful run at Fox on 24 — was asked backstage after the big night of wins if having the creative freedom afforded by Showtime made a big difference. “They have been phenomenally supportive and great partners,” he replied, “and they’ve had great patience. They gave us support and time with the characters and let the stories breathe. We’re really grateful.” Homeland‘s Emmy success comes just in time — the series’ second season premieres next Sunday.

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The first indicator of how the night would go was Lewis’ victory over three-time victor Bryan Cranston, denying Cranston what would have been a record fourth in succession. The charismatic Brit was himself convinced Cranston would be getting up onstage tonight, matching the prediction of pretty much every critic and pundit. But while Lewis was happy and honored to be holding the Emmy, he admitted that he doesn’t really think we should be judging art. “I’ve been to a lot of awards ceremonies where five guys get nominated and five get a trophy,” her said, “and that would really be my preference.” He used the word “lucky” several times in assessing his win. “I was lucky that I managed to win (voters) over with my performance. I’m unbelievably lucky. What can I say?”

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Lewis described Homeland as “a thriller, a thrill ride, a white-knuckle ride. People like to get sweaty palms on a Sunday night. It’s politically current, and it grounds that in a reality, and people respond to that, I think.” He acknowledged having anticipated more hostility to Homeland than the show has been met with, particularly given the “polarization of our political landscape at the moment, and the (gulf) between rich and poor. It’s undeniable that 9/11 changed the world, presented people not at their best, who behaved badly. But on the whole, we’re all doing the best we can after an atrocity that changed the world 10 years ago.”

Danes later admitted backstage after winning her second lead acting Emmy in three years that the thing that perhaps excites her most is the fact that an admitted Homeland fan named Barack Obama is watching her work week after week. In fact, the President has said it’s his favorite show and he never misses it. “It’s way cool that he’s a fan,” she said. “It speaks to the relevancy of the show and it’s hugely validating…I don’t need to write the thing, I just need to play it convincingly.” She added of the President, “It means so much to be (that he’s watching). I’m stupefied that he’s tuning in so consistently.” At the same time, Danes stressed that she doesn’t believe that Homeland is a particularly political show. She described it as “a psychological thriller that doesn’t take a very biased position. It does speak to the feelings of anxiety and unrest right now (in the country), and the fact we’re now in a new era where the enemy is not so clear.”

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She also replied to a question about portraying characters who suffer from mental illness, first in her Emmy-winning role in the HBO film Temple Grandin and now on Homeland. “I find these conditions incredibly fascinating,” Danes said. “I really love processing and learning about them and representing them, and rendering them in a hopefully realistic way. (Mental illness) isn’t talked about very often on such a big stage. I’m privileged to participate in that.”

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Perhaps most ebullient in his reaction backstage was co-star Mandy Patinkin, who described working with Danes as “one of the true gifts of my life.” He gushed that he watches Danes “like I’m a first-grade student trying to figure out how to do it. It’s like a magic trick.” The magic trick analogy could have applied to Showtime in general on Sunday night, as it reached into a hat and pulled out three giant pieces of gold to become, for a night, the second coming of HBO. Or AMC.