Homecoming, Amazon Prime's new political techno-mystery series starring Julia Roberts, has a tough task: how do you translate an effective podcast into effective television? The story here started off as a successful fiction series from Gimlet Media, a podcasting entity started by This American Life alum Alex Blumberg. But even with a hit blueprint to work from, a lot of creative people currently struggle with this transition conundrum—Gimlet included. Its podcast StartUp became ABC's recently canceled, Zach Braff-led Alex, Inc., and The New York Times reported another Gimlet show (Crimetown) has partnered with FX for a potential adaptation.
With its basic story already available in audio form, the bottom line is Homecoming has to offer something more. Luckily, having Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and his Anonymous Content team on board this go-round means the production itself—the score, the cinematography, the set design, even the decision to keep scripts at a half hour—can often hold viewer interest on its own. Add that to a fast-paced story and some hard-to-look-away-from performances, and Gimlet likely doesn't need to worry about its second TV endeavor ending in the same manner as its first.
Sights to see
Played on mute, Homecoming might appear mundane at first. The show is slow to reveal much plot, and initially everything seems innocuous. Soldiers come back from deployment and spend a few weeks at a facility that helps them reintegrate through therapy and sessions focused on life skills like job interviewing. But cues from composer Komeil S. Hosseini and needle-drops (i.e., the use of just a small portion of a song) from music supervisor Maggie Phillips indicate something a bit more nefarious may be in play. On the surface, phone calls or ho-hum office tasks take place on screen, but subterranean orchestral hits conjure up classic horror movies. Electro-passages that'd be at home on Mr. Robot also hint that some techno-thriller turns may be ahead.
This same kind of thematic work happens through Homecoming's cinematography. The camera almost sneaks into certain therapy sessions, catching participants from a low-angle close-up as if viewers are in on some secret. Office lobbies or stairwells get shot from high above, revealing an eerie symmetry make spaces inescapabile or endlessness. The color palette of the whole series stays dark with deep browns, grays, and dull-yellow lighting against the sterile office facility.
Most notably, however, Esmail and co. implement a pair of explicit camera tricks to great effect. When the show wants to indicate something happening in the "present" (i.e., a few years after scenes taking place at the facility), it switches to a vertical aspect ratio and picks up a film-like graininess. And often in these scenes, a vintage horror-like zoom—a slow, quasi-jagged approach until the camera sits almost uncomfortably close on a face or a document—ends up emphasizing the fact that something feels a bit off. These moments often convey information it's hard to imagine a podcast handling as subtly.
Storytelling to savor
Homecoming doles out that information in addictive drips, not splashes. Ars watched the first four episodes for this review, and we're still not totally clear what happened with the title facility, counselor Heidi Bergman (Roberts), or her new patient Walter Cruz (Stephan James of Selma). They all crossed each other in the spring of 2018, but in the "present" (four years later) no one seems to remember each other until a Department of Defense administrator named Thomas Carrasco (veteran Authority That Guy, Shea Whigham, most recently of Waco) comes asking questions. He received a complaint and has to investigate because Homecoming (the facility) was run by a government contractor called Geist (run by Mr. Robot alum Bobby Cannavale as Colin).
But that obscured view of the situation doesn't irritate—it intrigues. Homecoming makes the smart decision to opt for half-hour episodes rather than the traditional one-hour drama, so even just a little new information feels like enough reason to push forward (rather than quitting on the series because an hour-long episode feels meandering and ultimately light on content). The episodes always keep the pace up, and the performances leave you wanting to spend more time with these characters.
And from what we've seen of the mystery itself, the story gets consistently more gripping with each installment and starts to feel quite apt for the present day. Homecoming has clinical trials with money (not successful medicine) as the goal, government contractors potentially behaving badly with little oversight, the lasting horrors of military deployment, and a general mistrust of authority—plus, larger reveals seem likely to come. You can't help but root for Heidi and Walter even as they increasingly seem like pawns in some larger game, and you'll grow skeptical of Colin every time he opens his mouth.
All of that speaks to the strength of performances from Roberts, James, and Cannavale. The former pair in particular has chemistry almost immediately, and the stoicism deployed during some of their therapy sessions drives home some eventual points of emphasis.
How Homecoming sticks the landing will of course deeply impact the series' reception (see Mr. Robot S1 v. S2; both feature expert off-camera know-how, but one story felt shark-jumpy to fans). So far, Homecoming has been one of the most fun new TV series of 2018—oddly reminiscent of another entry into that class, Starz' Counterpart. Each centers on a slowly-revealed core mystery with a potential tinge of genre to twist audience expectations, and each captivates visually with strong lead performances and inventive filmmaking.
For better or worse, Amazon has made all of Homecoming available from day one. But this is the kind of show that compels you to run immediately for friends or weekly discussion threads to breakdown the twists and turns and ratchet up expectations for the next episode. Savor it (and if anyone already heard of or wants to make a good podcast about this show based on a podcast… well, there's likely an audience waiting and an audio S2 to plan accordingly for).
Listing image by Amazon Prime / Anonymous Content