When Showtime's Homeland upset critically beloved shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 23, it was viewed as both a victory and a challenge: Is Homeland really the best show on TV? Critics and viewers got the chance to judge for themselves on Sunday night, when Showtime aired the second-season premiere of Homeland, which went on to earn the best ratings in the show's history. (Watch Homeland's season 2 premiere below). Why is Homeland such a hit with critics and fans? Here, four reasons the Showtime drama continues to stand out among its TV contemporaries:

1. The acting is phenomenal
Homeland's second season premiere "contains one of the best moments of acting I've ever seen on TV," says Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club, when it becomes clear that Carrie (Claire Danes) will be "unable to resist the pull of her old life as a spy," even as she recognizes that it will destroy her. There's a reason that Homeland won the two biggest acting awards at the Emmys: These are actors who fully embody their characters, and who make the show both compelling and plausible.

2. Homeland is the most timely drama on TV
In light of recent events in Libya, it's a little eerie that Homeland's second season "opens with angry Arab mobs rioting outside an American embassy," says David Hiltbrand at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, Homeland's creators worry that its depiction of political tensions between the U.S. and the Middle East might be too accurate: "We're really trying to be sensitive about what's going on in the Middle East and about our foreign service officers in the region. We're hoping that we're not showing anything that would compromise their day-to-day operations," says Homeland executive producer Alex Gansa.

3. The show is politically thought-provoking
Homeland's smart depiction of the ins and outs of the CIA shows that the U.S. fights terrorism with "hunches and the power of luck in addition to intelligence and skill," says Rich Juzwiak at Gawker. Carrie, the series' deeply troubled main character, makes Homeland a "nobler and richer" character study than the average TV thriller, and her character's nature raises intriguing questions about whether the U.S. needs to rely on brilliant but unpredictable "wild cards" in order to combat terrorism.

4. And it portrays Islam accurately
Homeland may be about terrorism from the Middle East, but it's also a series that "sees the beauty of Islam rather than reducing it to a geopolitical force," says Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress. Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) is a converted Muslim, and the episode ends as he and his daughter bury a Koran that was desecrated after touching the floor. It's impressive to see a TV show that makes Islam "a critical point" of a main character's identity, and takes pains to ensure that its depictions of the religion are accurate.