TV Review: Homecoming

Short, Not Slight

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Don’t let Homecoming’s sleepy premise dissuade you, Sam Esmail’s new bite-size thriller is incisive, smart, and visually breathtaking. Julia Roberts makes her television debut in Amazon’s new series with a fascinating role that carries the show through its twisty narrative and visual tricks. Refreshing in its easily digestible 30-minute episodes, Amazon’s Homecoming makes for a brisk and satisfying binge. Mild spoilers ahead...

What happened to Heidi Bergman? This is the question at the center of Homecoming, the new half-hour drama on Amazon Prime based on a podcast by writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. Adapted for screen by Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot fame and scripted by Horowitz and Bloomberg, Homecoming is a taut, suspenseful thriller in the pastiche of Hitchcock and Seventies conspiracy thrillers a lá The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Benefitting from strong performances, excellent pacing, and captivating camerawork, the show is a much needed breath of fresh air.

Julia Roberts, in her first television role, stars as Heidi Bergman, a counselor and pointwoman at the Homecoming program, an establishment that focuses on reacclimating veterans to civilian life after returning home from service. Under her smug, self-absorbed boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale, doing what he does best), Bergman oversees the facility’s day to day and connects with the soldiers, forming an especially close bond with veteran Walter Cruz (a disarmingly magnetic Stephan James, If Beale Street Could Talk). However, flash forward four years, and Bergman is now working at a no-name dump of a restaurant and living with her mother (Sissy Spacek, having quite a year in a follow-up to Hulu’s Castle Rock). Bridging the gap in time is Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a Department of Defense investigator looking into a mysterious complaint about the Homecoming initiative. He shows up one day at the restaurant and questions Heidi, who is either playing very coy, or really doesn’t remember much about her time at her old job. Through his investigation, the show then attempts to fill in the blanks of how a respected counselor became a beleaguered small-town waitress.

Sam Esmail, through his work on Mr. Robot, can easily be considered a visual auteur. Sweeping cameras, elaborate long takes, and inventive framing are all techniques the acclaimed writer/director uses, and all techniques on full display in Homecoming. But where Mr. Robot is a layered and maximalist odyssey written by Esmail himself, Homecoming is a sharp and minimalist jaunt. Esmail’s philosophizing and sometimes esoteric writing style finds a perfect home at Mr. Robot, but when it comes to Homecoming, a simpler approach is more suitable for its half-hour runtime, and Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s scripts from their own source material effectively deliver, bringing out the best in its eclectic cast. Julia Roberts, who was once among the last bastion of film actors to avoid dabbling in television, anchors Homecoming with relatability, enigma, and pathos worthy of her old-guard movie star status. As the able throughline from past to present, Roberts’ chemistry with the rest of the cast is palpable, especially evident in her one-on-ones with Stephan James - what could have been bone-dry material is instead weighted with a kindred connection that makes the dialogue fly by.

Speaking of flying, the smartest decision Amazon made was making Homecoming a half-hour drama. The 30-minute runtime is a refreshing boon to a medium where other auteur-driven programming can push episodes to a bloviating and exhausting 90-plus minutes (I’m looking at you, The Romanoffs). Short enough to avoid laborious pop psychologizing, and just long enough to provide substance and thrills, Homecoming is easily digestible even for audiences with short attention spans. The shorter episodes also mean that the series is amazingly lean, trimming the fat and padding that other mystery shows love to utilize in order to withhold answers.

Finally, it’s impossible to talk about a Sam Esmail show without mentioning the cinematography, and Homecoming delivers some of the most inspired camerawork and visual flair this side of Breaking Bad.  With its intricate long takes, gorgeous drone footage, and deliberate framing, the show loves to keep things visually arresting. And while Homecoming is beautiful to look at, its cinematography is much more than just skin-deep gloss. With deep meaning and much forethought, every shot has a purpose, every flourish a message. The best example of the show’s purposeful visuals is the seemingly simple framing device Esmail uses to separate past from present: Heidi’s time at Homecoming is portrayed in traditional widescreen, but her time as a waitress and Carrasco’s investigation in the present is conveyed in a vertical frame (think iPhone footage where the user forgot to turn the phone horizontal). At first, it seems to be a gimmicky method of distinguishing between the two time periods, but later on this device becomes an ingenious storytelling tool that left my mouth agape (that I won’t spoil here).

Amazon’s Homecoming is the full package - a compelling yarn about morality and memory wrapped up in beautiful performances and cinematography. If you have five extra hours, it’s a quick and easy binge, but it’s also a show that will stick with you regardless of your TV preferences. Julia Roberts has never done television before, but Homecoming proves that she’s right where she belongs: with a show and cast up to her caliber.

GRADE: A