Gimlet Media’s narrative podcast Homecoming told a paranoid thriller story entirely via a series of two-person dialogue scenes, hinting at a grand conspiracy through phone calls, therapy sessions and conversations over drinks. Amazon’s TV-series adaptation of Homecoming (premiering November 2) expands the dramatic range of the podcast and adds some elaborate visuals, but it still hinges on the often wary interactions among people with competing, sometimes secret agendas.
Like the audio version, the show also depends on the strong performances from actors who spend a lot of their screen time simply delivering exposition. In her first-ever regular TV-series role, Julia Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a case worker at the blandly (yet ominously) named Homecoming initiative, a project designed to help military veterans transition back into civilian life following their tours of duty overseas. Or at least that’s the official goal, the one that Heidi and her colleagues sell to the soldiers they treat and to any family members who ask. But Homecoming clearly has another, more sinister goal, one that becomes clearer over the course of the 10-episode first season.
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For starters, Heidi is always on the phone with her demanding, insensitive boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), who seems to have no interest whatsoever in the well-being of the soldiers she’s treating. He’s especially concerned that Heidi is getting a little too close to one particular client, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a sensitive young man who’s tormented by the death of one of his fellow soldiers. Even more troubling are the scenes that take place four years later, when Heidi is working as a waitress at a diner in a rundown seaside town and living at home with her mom (Sissy Spacek), and seems to have no memory of her time working at Homecoming.
Creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz (who also created the podcast) split the episodes fairly evenly between the two time periods, as the Heidi of the past gets closer to Walter and becomes increasingly concerned about the nature of her job and the people she works for, and the Heidi of the present deals with questions from Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a meek but determined investigator from the Department of Defense, who’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened at Homecoming.
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Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail directed all 10 episodes, and while he isn’t one of the writers, the show still reflects a lot of the themes of paranoia and corporate control that Esmail explores on his USA series. Esmail also compensates (and, at times, overcompensates) for the largely functional nature of the dialogue with off-kilter, eye-catching shot composition, including frequent meticulously symmetrical overhead shots.
While the scenes in the past are shot in standard widescreen, the scenes that take place four years later are shot in a constrained aspect ratio that looks like a smartphone’s vertical video. That may (sadly) reflect the way that some viewers will watch the show, and it has a nice thematic payoff in a later episode, but it’s more often just a distraction, forcing the characters into a cramped, ugly frame that doesn’t even take up half of a typical widescreen TV picture.
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The show’s other major break in format is a lot more successful: the episodes all run about 30 minutes, just half as long as the average cable or streaming drama, and that allows the writers to keep the plot momentum going, ending nearly every episode on a cliffhanger that propels the viewer into the next chapter. It makes sense that, in adapting a podcast whose episodes typically ran under 20 minutes each, the creators would keep the storytelling lean and efficient.
Even so, Bloomberg and Horowitz add a bunch of supporting characters to the cast, most of whom don’t make much of an impact. Spacek is totally wasted as Heidi’s supportive but ineffectual mom, and while Alex Karpovsky is amusing as Heidi’s gung-ho co-worker, he isn’t missed when he disappears for long stretches of the story. The most effective addition is Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Walter’s determined, protective mother, who doesn’t buy for one second the official story she’s told by Heidi about what Homecoming has in store for her son. Her actions on Walter’s behalf end up being the catalyst to set the entire plot into motion.
That plot owes as much to classic conspiracy thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Three Days of the Condor as it does to Mr. Robot, and a lot of Esmail’s arty touches only obfuscate the relatively clean, streamlined narrative, which gives the audience plenty of clues needed to piece the story together, right alongside Thomas and Heidi. To that end, Roberts tones down her natural effervescent magnetism (and sports some deeply unflattering hairstyles) to play the troubled, insecure Heidi, even channeling a bit of Catherine Keener, who played the character in the podcast.
Whigham mostly gets stuck connecting one plot thread to another as Thomas, and James is likable as the open, friendly Walter, but the most impressive performance in the main cast comes from Cannavale, who reveals Colin’s deep well of manipulative amorality as the corporate functionary emerges as the story’s true villain. More than a wide-ranging conspiracy, Homecoming is about how the petty desire to impress a dismissive boss and climb the corporate ladder can twist someone like Colin into a monster, just for the sake of getting ahead and saving face.