"Homeland" could bring Showtime its first best drama series Emmy Award Sunday night, giving premium cable's redheaded stepchild a hard-won claim to legitimacy.

The intense psychological thriller follows Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a newly freed prisoner of war and possible mole for al Qaeda, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the eager CIA agent who is on his tail -- in more ways than one. The kinetic push-and-pull between characters is anchored by Carrie's unflappable colleague and mentor, Saul Berenson (a typically rock-solid Mandy Patinkin, who was robbed of a nomination as best supporting actor.)

It's fashionable to be a fan of "Homeland," with its uneasy mix of post-9/11 national pride and deep skepticism of the true nature of the war on terror. Carrie's poorly managed bipolar disorder and the constant threat it will derail her career gives her a vulnerability that hastens our emotional investment in her. Speaking of skepticism, the weakness may also make the driven, often abrasive female lead a bit easier to swallow.

Viewers (and Emmy voters) also have to accept the show's somewhat incredulous timeline: Although Danes is but 33 in real life (and could pass for younger), Carrie appears to have a very senior position at the agency, where she has been employed since before 2001. According to vague references every now and again, it seems Carrie's role in the agency at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was critical enough that she still has not recovered from what she believes was a critical mistake. Carrie's veteran status also doesn't line up with the amateurish, "gotcha" enthusiasm that characterizes her near-crazed pursuit of Sgt. Nicholas Brody's true identity.

"Homeland's" brilliance lies in its treatment of whether the war hero is secretly working for the terrorists. While we end the season closer to knowing if he was or wasn't "turned" during his eight years in the hole, we have only just begun to get a sense of the moral ambiguities that inform his loyalties. Brody's tentative reunion with his patient but nonetheless human wife Jessica Brody (Morena Baccarin) gives the character and the show a relatable emotional heft.

The Emmy Awards' best drama series pool is as competitive as it's been in a decade: "Homeland" is among four exceptional, critically beloved shows (along with"Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," and "Downton Abbey") that have decent odds at striking Emmy gold. As Gold Derby's Tom O'Neill pointed out, the abundance of genuine contenders means a very small number of votes could make the difference.

Unlike fellow best drama series nominees "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," "Homeland" didn't have any particularly standout episodes throughout its debut season (save the finale): Its strength is in the slow burn of Carrie's unraveling and Brody's reveal. Showtime submitted episodes that reflect this recognition; choosing those that highlighted the season's narrative arc and emotionally fraught relationship between the two leads. It's a logical choice, but one that will deny Emmy voters less significant episodes with scenes driven by more nuanced writing and acting -- brief, subtle diversions that kept viewers attached at times when the primary storyline and the lead characters' dialogue was delivered with perhaps too heavy of a hand.

While most of the shows it's competing with are either wrapping up or fizzling out, "Homeland" was quickly renewed for a second season and seems perched for a extended stay at Showtime. At some point in the future, we can expect "Homeland" to take home the best drama series Emmy, but probably not as early as Sunday night.