In a fall season whose biggest stories have been an expensive dinosaur show and the resurrection of the sitcom, one of the best new shows snuck onto our screens with all the stealth of the espionage world it depicts. Homeland, which premiered last night after Dexter on Showtime, is probably the most serious yet entertaining, subtle yet gut-level entertaining, sly yet not “cool” drama to premiere thus far. As a Showtime series, it’s not a splattery-splashy as Dexter, but… well, thank goodness.

At the center of Homeland’s appeal is the fact that it is at once timely and escapist. The series takes seriously the notion that America is still very much a terrorism target, that the killing of Osama bin Laden may have driven our enemies both deeper underground and into a deeper rage. At the same time, unlike AMC’s admirable but cancelled after a season Rubicon, Homeland doesn’t lock itself away in musty rooms, shuffling papers looking for anagrams of “al Qaeda.” No, when Claire Danes’ CIA agent Carrie Mathison hears that a Marine prisoner of war (Life’s Damian Lewis), held overseas and tortured for eight years, is being released, she leaped out of her office, did an end-run around her superiors (including an excellently restrained Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor), and bugged the guy’s house. She had a tip that “an American prisoner of war has been turned,” and thinks Lewis’ Sgt. Nicholas Brody may now be that broken traitor in our midst.

We watched as Carrie did, as Brody tries to reinsert himself into the lives of his wife, Jessica (V’s Morena Baccarin), and two children (Morgan Saylor and Jackson Pace). We and Carrie know that Jessica has been having an affair with Brody’s old service buddy; unlike Carrie, we’ll also soon know that Brody prays to Allah. Does a devotion to Islam equal suspicious behavior? Does a nervous tic Brody displays while being filmed for TV betray a code to new masters? Homeland presents Carrie and Brody as equals – you don’t know who’s right or wrong, do you?

Since she became an enduring TV icon (a word I do not to throw around idly) as Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, Claire Danes has spent a lot of time in ensemble-cast movies (from Little Women to The Mod Squad to The Hours), but she still finds her best work in television. Her Temple Grandin, for which she won an Emmy, was a striking example of the way Danes can burrow into a character without giving herself an I’m-glammier-than-the-person-I’m-playing exit strategy. The woman commits.

In Homeland, Danes is an exceptionally committed agent who might qualify to be committed. Her Carrie us a brilliant, rebellious data analyst whose professional standing is compromised by the fact that she’s bipolar. Danes’ performance here is every bit as fully inhabited as her Angela Chase and her Temple Grandin. Lewis is equally good, rendering Brody guarded and shut-down in a manner that nonetheless is exciting to witness. Executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who used to help Jack Bauer avert national disasters on 24, now take a more measured, thoughtful look at terrorism. But that doesn’t make what they show us any less frightening, or less exciting as drama.

What did you think of Homeland?

Twitter: @kentucker